When it comes to losing weight, there are generally only two parts to the equation: exercise and diet. And I think it is usually the latter part that people struggle with most – eating healthily.
Nothing (or at least, nothing safe and healthy) is going to replace exercise when it comes to burning the calories you put into your body, but when it comes to diet, people are always looking for magic solutions, which is why we have seen so many dieting fads over the last 100 years.
We’ve had the Cigarette Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet and the Lemonade Diet.
Atkins, Slimfast, Cookie, Alkaline, Paleo, Grapefruit, the list goes on and on.
None of them have really lasted and very few (if any) really worked for the simple reason that the regimens are simply unsustainable for 99.9% of people.
The latest dieting fad is the Keto Diet, which will probably also go the way of the others once people realize it’s basically just another unsustainable form of dieting and then they will move onto the next thing that holds the promise of quick results.
Really, the crux of a healthy diet is about balance and avoiding as much of the processed crap the food industry spews out as possible.
But let’s not get into that here.
A lot of eating habits are just that – they’re habits. Once they are formed, they can be hard to break. And those habits can work for you if you are eating well, or against you if you are in the rut of grabbing fast food and craving sweets with low nutritional value.
Forming good habits can take some work and time, but to help you get ahead, there are quite a few ‘hacks’ you can use to trick yourself into eating more healthily.
Check out these and let us know what you think.
1. Re-programming your reward system
This is really about re-wiring your brain and re-training your taste buds to remove the distinction between what is perceived to be a ‘reward’, i.e. the sweet treats like ice cream and chocolate at the end of a hard day, and what is perceived to be a ‘punishment’ – eating salads, ‘boring’ fruits, humus or whatever.
Devouring a tub of ice cream when you’re feeling down is literally training your brain to expect a sugar rush as an antidote to feeling low.
And if you always have a dessert after your dinner, your body will expect and crave it because it needs that sugar (and consequently, dopamine) hit.
The effect is a bit like taking a drug, as the body will build up a tolerance and raise the threshold required to get the same dopamine high.
Eventually, our bodies build up a tolerance to the food, causing us to need more of the same to reach that same high.
In this scenario, eating raw vegetables and fruit will never satisfy the craving, because your body is expecting the sweet stuff.
But you can actually re-train your taste buds and the brain’s cravings by gradually weaning yourself off the sugar. Note that I am not saying that all sugar is bad per se, but consuming a lot of it at the expense of more nutritional options is definitely not a good way to keep your body healthy, so from that point of view, sugar should absolutely be consumed in moderation.
The less sugar you consume, the more sensitive you become to sweet-tasting things. You’ll eventually find that you won’t want more than a couple of bites of that cake you used to finish in one sitting and you may even find that eventually, you don’t even like sweet stuff.
To wean yourself off the sweets, you need to reduce the frequency and the portion size. So, if you currently eat puddings every night, start doing every other night and alternate with the ‘healthy option’ of fruit or nuts.
And then gradually make the portion size smaller and then the frequency to twice a week and then maybe just now and again.
Your brain will soon respond by craving the ‘good stuff’ over the crap and you’ll find that you enjoy the taste of nuts and fruit and you’ll eat the highly addictive sugar-loaded foods much less often.
Since I have been living in Asia, I rarely crave sweet things any more. I still eat them, but never really crave them. I do, however, now crave things like nuts and hot water, but that’s another story!
2. Hiding vegetables
Kids generally hate eating greens. It’s pretty universal. And the habits we form in childhood often carry over into our adult lives. You know they’re good for you, but it seems your brain doesn’t recognize a plate of spinach as a viable option when there’s a burger sitting right next to it. Again, it comes down to habit and what your brain and taste buds are used to.
‘Sneaking’ vegetables into your comfort foods can help you on the road to more healthy eating. For example:
- Adding leafy greens like spinach or kale into smoothies
- Juicing carrots, cucumbers and avocados
- Mixing with eggs to makes frittatas
- Mixing vegetables in with mashed potato
- Use lettuce for wraps instead of using bread or tortillas
- Pureed vegetables can be used in a lot of meat dishes
- Soups are a great ways to eat more vegetables
And there are loads more ways! Get creative and remember to think about vegetables in terms of an ingredient, rather than just a side dish.
Another option is to introduce ‘superfoods’ as an ingredient for both your regular meals and for smoothies.
3. Using a smaller plate
Often people put on weight not just because of what they eat, but how much they eat. An old dieting trick is to use a smaller plate. This is not simply because it holds less food, but also because it creates the illusion of more food, which tricks your brain into thinking you’ve eaten more.
Another variation on this is to use a bigger fork, which makes you eat less food. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but there was actually a study done in a restaurant where half the customers were given forks that were 20% larger than regular and they found that those with the bigger forks left significantly more food on their plates than those with smaller forks.
The researchers suggested that the reason for this was because the diners’ focus was on the visual cue of whether they were making any dent in the amount of food on their plates, so the smaller fork (compared to the larger fork) appeared to provide less satisfactory progress. In other words, the diners felt they were not making much of a dent in consuming their food and, hence, satisfying their hunger. This, in turn, focused diners to put in more effort (e.g., more forkfuls) towards satiating their hunger. And as a result, diners with the smaller forks consumed more food than those using larger forks.
4. Keeping fruit and other healthy items visible
Having healthy snacks, like fruits, vegetables and nuts on display and within reach can drastically alter your snacking habits. If you put a bowl of fruit on the table where you pass regularly, you are more likely to grab that apple that if it were hidden away in the back of the fridge. The same applies to the fridge itself – you need to keep the healthy stuff at the front and maybe even in clear containers or bags, clean and ready to eat as soon as you grab them.
5. Drinking flavoured water
Water plays an important role in our diet and eating habits. It hydrates the body without adding calories and can assist weight-loss. Many people find it hard to take on an adequate amount of water, simply because they hate the fact that water doesn’t have any taste. To make water more appealing, try some infusing it with some fruit slices like oranges, lemons, lime, cucumber and you can even add herbs. This not only makes water taste better, but has the added benefit of providing you with more antioxidants and vitamins.
6. Cooking meals in batches
Cooking healthy food in batches ensures that you have enough meals for the days ahead. A lot of bad food choices are made when we don’t plan what we are going to eat and so we end up grabbing stuff on the go or ordering take-away because we haven’t stocked the fridge.
Preparing a batch of chili or lasagna for several meals in advance makes it less likely that you will make bad meal choices and so you’re kind of tricking yourself into healthy eating by just being organized!
7. Eating with soft lighting and music
There was a study done by Cornell University showing that softer lighting and mellow music like soft jazz can influence people to eat less. Researchers found that people who dine at places where the light and music are soft tend to eat around 18 percent less food than people who dine in a regular setting.
Even if this doesn’t really work, it’s nice to enjoy a meal in a nice, relaxed environment, so worth doing anyway.
8. Choosing healthy treats
Eating healthily doesn’t always mean that you have to cut out the treats completely. It’s all about moderation and balance. Depriving yourself too much is a sure-fire way to fail at a dieting regime. And I think that is why so many dieting fads don’t work – they are just not sustainable.
People find they have to sacrifice too much and it shouldn’t have to be like that.
This comes back to the first point about re-programming your reward system. Not only that, there are always healthier alternatives when it comes to treats. For example, frozen fruit smoothie instead of ice cream, kale chips instead of potato chips, dried fruits instead of candy. You get the idea.
Going with the healthier options for your cravings will eventually become a habit and you’ll end up reaching for those things more than the old, less healthy options. Remember, we’re not just talking about calorific value, but also nutritional value here.
9. Adding some colour to your plate
Rainbow-coloured plates of food seem to be all the rage on Instagram at the moment. But aesthetics aside, eating a variety of colourful food provides vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to nourish your body. Aim for at least three colours at every meal and two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables over the course of the day.
The more colourful you can make your meals, the more likely you are to be eating healthy, nutrient rich food.
10. Seeing through the marketing BS
When you see commercials for food, which, let’s face it, is generally for fast food and unhealthy food (when’s the last time you saw an advert for kale?), try thinking about it for what it actually is: it is marketing for a product that the producer wants you to buy. It is a business. They don’t give a crap about your health – they’re just in it for the money. They are like drug pushers. They want you to get addicted to their toxic shite, so that you buy more of it and make them richer, while you get fatter and poorer!!!
Hopefully, that’ll make you feel disgusted enough to go and eat some mixed nuts.
These hacks will all help you succeed in eating more healthily, but there are two over-arching tips that will really dictate how successful you are.
The first is about the pace at which you implement change.
I really like the work and opinions of James Clear on habit-forming and decision-making – go check out his website if he’s new to you.
He talks a lot about the “aggregation of marginal gains”, which basically means making small changes regularly to achieve big results over time.
And I think it is important to take the same approach when trying to transition from eating poorly to eating more healthily.
Trying to cut out all the bad stuff all at once is not going to work for most people. It’s a bit like trying to run a marathon without training. But a disciplined approach of gradually replacing unhealthy options for healthy ones will see much better and more importantly, sustainable results in the future. And sustainability is the key to healthy eating.
The second element is about developing a routine and one you can stick to.
Developing a routine around healthy eating habits will help you to remain consistent in your efforts and to essentially re-programme your brain. For example, planning ahead and choosing a certain day of the week to do the grocery shopping or to cook your batch of meals, and blocking out certain times of days to grab a healthy snack will help to cement the habits you are building.
It is never easy at the beginning, but remember that every journey begins with a single step and the aggregation of marginal gains will pay dividends over time.
Before too long, you’ll be eating healthily without even thinking about it.
Consider this as well – if you are already in the habit of eating badly, you know that you are capable of forming a habit. Now it is just a question of replacing the bad habit with a good one!
Remember that, on average, it takes people at least a couple of months (and often longer) to form a habit, so stick with it and don’t expect miracles overnight.