Are grocery lists and organized food plans required for Healthy Eating?

If you are a person who is fundamentally satisfied with the nourishment, health benefits, and pleasure that you are getting from food—and you don't already make grocery lists or plan your meals in an organized way—additional planning steps might not make sense. But if you are someone who doesn't do much food planning and you are looking to boost your nourishment, your health benefits, or the simple pleasures of eating, we definitely encourage you to keep reading. Research in this area might surprise you as much as it surprised us!

Over the past ten years, research on healthy eating has shown the important role played by our day-to-day habits, and studies have repeatedly pointed to what is often referred to as a "gap" in our approach to food. This "gap" involves the space between our intentions and our actions. We know that we should eat healthier foods including more vegetables. And we know that healthier foods can lower our risk of personal health problems. In short, we have plenty of "motivation." Participants in research studies often describe their intention to eat healthier foods—especially more fruits and vegetables. What the science shows, however, is that good intentions and sound motivations aren't enough to bring about healthier eating. People want to eat healthier foods and they fully intend to eat healthier foods, but these feelings don't get translated into changed food choices. Researchers typically describe this phenomenon as a "gap" between intention and behavior, and they have looked closely at the nature of this "gap" and what happens between our good intentions and our actual food choices.

What studies show is the inability of motivations and intentions to strongly influence our food choices because of the great distance between our motivations/intentions and our immediate food surroundings. We could be 100% motivated to eat more fresh vegetables, but if we are tired and hungry and no fresh vegetables are on-hand, we aren't going to eat them. Similarly, we aren't going to have fresh vegetables on-hand unless we have previously gone out and purchased them. It is impossible for fresh vegetables to be on-hand simply by accident!

This set of circumstances has led researchers to conclude that the "gap" between food intentions and food choices is essentially a gap in planning. Similarly, researchers have concluded that better planning is the best strategy for closing the gap between intentions and choices. In research studies, planning is more closely related to healthy eating than either motivations or intentions. For example, in studies on diet and weight management, success has been more closely linked to the planning of food purchases than to the monitoring of weight changes. Similarly, the existence of planned, routine meal times has been more closely linked to weight loss success than increased consumption of low-fat foods or daily calorie counting. We've also seen a study on participants with type 2 diabetes that showed better glycemic control (as measured by blood levels of hemoglobin A1C) after 12 weeks with increased meal planning.

At WHFoods, we see planning as a common sense factor in healthy eating. All of us have everyday circumstances that can make healthy eating a challenge. Our day doesn't always go like we planned. We have distractions and unexpected obligations. And we might not always feel confident about filling up the day with healthy eating. Planning can be a great solution to these challenges, and the value of planning stands out in research studies. For example, in one study on daily fruit and vegetable intake, planning was shown to increase average fruit and vegetable servings per day by one half serving.

Researchers have shown that food planning involves two components. At WHFoods, we would describe these two components as "what" and "when." We have to know what we want to purchase in order to have that particular food on hand. And we have to know when we want to eat it in order to weave it into our daily activities. The "what" and "when" of planning are especially important with whole fresh foods like vegetables, since they cannot sit on our shelves for months and months like canned products, and they require some minimal amount of rinsing, chopping, etc. prior to eating. In addition, knowing "what" and "when" you are going to eat is not simply a matter of getting stuck somewhere without a healthy food choice. It's also a matter of your personal preferences and having your favorite foods available. Planning is a way of adding flexibility to your daily diet. It's a way of making sure that you can work around the foods you might need to avoid (for example, due to food allergy). And it's a way to custom tailor your menu for the foods you most enjoy.

All of us might be tempted to dismiss planning as a waste of time. We might tell ourselves, "I don't really need to make a grocery list since I can remember what I need to buy." Or, "It doesn't matter if I plan to have baked salmon for dinner, who knows what might come up between now and then." But research findings make it clear that planning is anything but a waste of time. It's the best way to bridge the gap between intentions and actions. And in addition, it can give us more confidence in our ability to practice healthy eating. Knowing that we can eat more fresh vegetables begins with success in purchasing them. We overcome one of the critical barriers to healthy eating every time we purchase a fresh vegetable! And every time we arrive back at home and realize, "I've got everything I was hoping for right here in my kitchen," we feel better about our food and about ourselves.

If you are looking for a practical example of food planning that focuses on the benefits of our WHFoods, we encourage you to look over the Smart Way of Eating plan on our website or the Smart Menu in the second edition of the World's Healthiest Foods cookbook.

For more on Great Healthy Eating Habits:

  1. Does Healthy Eating require cooking on a regular basis?
  2. Does Healthy Eating require three meals each day?
  3. Are snacks a good thing or a bad thing for Healthy Eating?
  4. Does it matter if dinner is the largest meal of the day?
  5. How consistent does my diet have to be in order for me to stay healthy?
  6. Is it possible to create a well-balanced diet without paying attention to portion sizes?
  7. Is Healthy Eating possible on a tight budget?
  8. Is it okay for me to "eat on the run?"
  9. Just how common is "eating on the run?"
  10. Problem 1 with "eating on the run"—getting distracted from the process of eating
  11. Problem 2 with "eating on the run"—eating too quickly for our body systems:george,421]
  12. References for "Is it okay to "eat on the run?"
  13. References for "Is it okay to "eat on the run?"

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