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No, really: Why is it so hard to eat healthy?



Healthy food is good for us, but unhealthy is just so good. See more pictures of food portions.“Healthy food is good for us, but unhealthy is just so good. See more pictures of food portions.©iStockphoto.com/AngiePhotos

You don’t have to look far for a number of likely culprits in the healthy-diet battle. From nutrition-barren fast foods to packaged foods filled with sodium and bad-for-you fats, eating a healthy diet can be tough.

It Just Tastes Too Good

Food is fuel, making it essential for survival. But eating is also pleasurable, a fact that isn’t lost on the food industry. Dr. David A. Kessler in his book, "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite", talks about the bliss point of certain foods, a perfect blending of fats, sugars and sodium that creates enormous pleasure. This isn’t hyperbole but science, and food science is serious business resulting in billions of dollars in revenue annually. The next time you make a french fry run to your nearest drive-through of choice, you could be responding to a food craving that nature never intended to be so compelling or potentially dangerous to your health. Is there a solution? Well, probably, but it will take real willpower to overcome the pull of great tasting, shrewdly concocted dishes that are bad for you [source: Parker-Pope].

I Ate Too Much

When you overeat, and all of us do from time to time, you can do yourself a big disservice. Your body, no doubt as a hedge against starvation, has strategies in place that take advantage of food when it’s available. This can make eating healthy a problem.

When you overeat, your stomach can stretch, and once it has stretched, it will need more food to feel full. Overeating may also trigger your hypothalamus, which regulates appetite, to crave more food. Essentially, the more you eat, the more you want to eat.

This can become a vicious cycle, particularly around the holidays when people do most of their heavy-duty overeating. Those well-intentioned resolutions about cutting back after an eating binge may be harder to implement than you think, and by the time you do manage to start eating right again, it may take a big commitment and months of effort to undo the damage [source: Mueller].

But Granny Ate What She Wanted

In an age of automobiles and other labor-saving gadgets, you’re probably getting less exercise than folks did even a couple of generations ago. Less exercise means your body needs less food. This would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that eating is so much fun. And wouldn’t you know it, the types of foods that make the most wonderful combinations, like fats, sugars and salt, are high in calories and low in many important nutrients.

There are some fixes you can employ here, like exercising more, taking vitamins and making sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. A good rule of thumb is, regardless of the dietary plan you’re exploring, eat a variety of foods every day, limit your fat intake, eat slowly, drink plenty of water and consume only as many calories as you use on a daily basis.

You’re not alone in the struggle to eat right. Taking a moment to read the nutritional information on the foods you buy can help you understand how the ingredients will fit into a balanced daily diet. There are also a number of publications available through the Department of Health and Human Services that offer guidance on healthier eating practices.


Did You Know?

Every five years, the Department of Health and Human Services publishes Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This booklet is free of charge and offers invaluable information about food, exercise and healthy lifestyle practices.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • 5 Healthy Foods That Are Fun To Make
  • Nutrition Quiz
  • Teaching Kids Why Good Ingredient Matter


  • Cleveland Clinic. "8 Steps to Surviving Holiday Weight Gain." 11/09. 11/20/09.http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/nutrition/holidayeating12_01.aspx
  • Mueller, Jen. "In the News: Overeating Can Throw Off Metabolism. " 10/8/2008. 11/19/09.http://www.dailyspark.com/blog.asp?post=in_the_news_overeating_can_throw_off_metabolism
  • Parker-Pope, Tara. "How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains." New York Times. 6/22/09. 11/19/09.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/health/23well.html
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." Undated. 11/20/09.http://www.health.gov/DietaryGuidelines/
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Finding Your Way to a Healthier You: Based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans." Undated. 11/19/09.http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/html/brochure.htm#b1

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