Formula Medical Group
Apple Valley, CA

James Krider, MD

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Eating habits

How do eating habits affect the body?

Eating habits affect both the quantity and quality of a person's nutritional intake. Poor eating habits are often instrumental in a number of major diseases, including heart attacks, diabetes, and certain cancers. Diverse factors such as ethnic back­ground, economic status, geography, peer influences, and food preferences help shape eating habits.

Recent government surveys have compared current eating habits with those that prevailed at the end of World War II. At that time, meat, milk, eggs, potatoes, and sweets were considered the major dietary staples. Sweets are still high on the typical American menu; otherwise, what and how we eat is a far cry from the practices in our grandparents' day. Today, for example:

  • Americans consume an average of 80 pounds of fresh vegetables and 94 pounds of fresh fruits a year, an increase of 27 percent over 1967.
  • According to the U.S. Department of
  • agriculture, consumption of low-fat milk increased by 1,681 percent since the 1960's, compared to a 300 percent drop in consumption of whole milk. In the same period, yogurt sales increased 12-fold.
  • More than 40 percent of meals are consumed away from home.
  • Half of American adults skip breakfast and 25 percent forego lunch. In contrast, 60 percent get more than one-fifth of their calories from snacks or "grazing."
  • Intake of red meat has
    dropped from a record
    169 pounds per person in 1977 to 144 pounds in 1988. In contrast, Americans now consume record amounts of poultry (77 pounds) and fish (15 pounds) a year. Consumption of pasta, grain products, and legumes has also increased.

More than ever, economic factors appear to influence food habits, especially those of children and the aged. A recent study reported that 1 in 8 American children go hungry at least part of the time, due largely to rising unemployment and socioeconomic problems such as homelessness and drug abuse. In contrast, the more affluent eat increasing amounts of convenience foods.

Despite increased awareness of the importance of nutrition and

Americans now consume record amounts of vegetables and poultry.

Americans now consume record amounts of vegetables and poultry.

public concern over cholesterol, fats, and other dietary factors, over­weight continues to be our leading health problem. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that half of all American adults are over­weight, with 4 percent weighing at least twice their desirable weight.

When should I see my doctor?
Excess weight or any nutrition-related problem should prompt you to see a doctor. Faulty eating habits sometimes lead to serious eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, a disease characterized by a distorted self-image and self-starvation, or bulimia, periodic food binges followed by purging. Any unexplained weight change also warrants a checkup.

Nutrition is important in the treatment of many disorders, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, AIDS, and kidney or liver disorders. These diseases usually mandate altered eating habits to meet nutritional needs. In addition, eating habits are particularly important during pregnancy and breast feeding as well as during children's growth spurts and after surgery or serious illness.

What will the doctor do?
After assessing your nutritional status, your doctor may refer you to a registered dietitian for specific counseling or help in overcoming faulty eating habits. Anorexia and/or bulimia usually require both psychiatric and medical treatment.

Long-term approach

Eating habits are formed early in life and are influenced by

Eating on the run often means high-calorie food choices.
Eating on the run often means high-calorie food choices.

myriad factors. Parents should pay particular attention to what and how they feed their children; they also should set good examples. Lifelong faulty eating habits are often traced to childhood and parental influences or messages regarding food. For example, using food as a pacifier fosters overeating when under stress.

Faulty eating habits that are built over a lifetime cannot be changed overnight. Before attempting to alter eating habits, dietitians advise that you keep a food diary for a week or two, and then analyze all aspects of what you eat and drink. Do you eat only at mealtimes or do you snack throughout the day? Do you turn to food when you are angry, under stress, or depressed? What do you drink during the course of a day?

Such a diary often provides surprises. For example, many people are surprised to find how many calories they consume from juices, soft drinks, and other beverages. Grazers are similarly surprised to realize how their snacking adds up. Pick one or two specific behaviors and make a conscious effort to change them. For example, if you are trying to lose weight and one-third or more of your calories come from drinks, switch to low-calorie substitutes. Similarly, if a large portion of your calories come from snacks, make sure they are low-calorie, high-nutrition selections such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Advice about eating habits

  • Plan a day's eating program and stick to it. If you are tempted by a food that is not on today's plan, put it into tomorrow's menu.
  • Pay attention to hunger signals. Don't make the mistake of denying hunger pangs until you are so hungry you're apt to eat everything in sight.
  • Don't skip breakfast. If you don't have time to sit down for a regular breakfast, make a sandwich that you can eat on the run.
This article was last reviewed December 5, 2005 by Dr. James Krider.
Reproduced in part with permission of Home Health Handbook.

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