The Two Most Powerful Ways to Create a Healthy Eating Pattern
By Leo Babauta
While most people want to find a way to eat healthier, they are up against forces stronger than they understand.
Sure, we’d like to eat healthier — but then why do we keep failing? Why are most of us getting heavier over time, despite our best efforts?
To figure out a better method, we first have to look at the powerful forces we’re up against. Then firm our resolve, and try one or both of the powerful methods that I describe below.
The Forces We’re Up Against
Let’s say you’d like to eat a healthier diet … think about what you’re up against:
- You wake in the morning and are hungry and in a hurry — you know you want to cook something healthy with vegetables, or maybe some oats with fruits and nuts, but it’s too much work and takes too long. So you eat a quick bowl of cereal or grab a pastry at the coffee shop.
- You want to get a salad for lunch but there’s a party at work and there are a lot of unhealthy options right there in front of you, very tempting. Or perhaps your co-workers invite you to lunch and you can’t resist getting the burgers or fried foods they’re eating.
- You want to avoid sweets but then you go to a family gathering and there are delicious desserts passing in front of your nose all day long, and you just go for it.
- You’ve been disciplined about eating healthy for a few days, but at night your cravings for snacks get the best of you and you just pig out. This is your body’s hormone signals at work, telling you to eat because it doesn’t want you to drop below a certain level (your bodyfat set point).
- You are tired, you had a hard day, and you want to just comfort yourself with some snacks (comfort foods).
I’m sure at least a couple of these sound familiar to most of you. Maybe too familiar — you might have been struggling with these for years.
The forces we’re up against are powerful:
- Lack of time and energy, so we opt for convenience
- Social forces that cause us to do what others are doing
- Tempting foods are too hard to pass up very often — this is a combination of high-reward foods and depletion of discipline
- Our bodies signaling that we should eat when our bodyfat starts to drop (bodyfat set point)
- We use food to reward or comfort ourselves, and this is an ingrained habit from childhood
Most of us can’t beat all of these really strong forces all the time. And so we win a few battles but lose the war over the long run.
What can we do against these powerful forces? Are they unstoppable?
No, we can overcome them. It will just take more focused effort than we usually believe when we say, “I’m going to start eating healthier, tomorrow!”
There are two powerful methods that can help us overcome these forces.
Powerful Method #1: Change Your Environment
Most of the forces above can be overcome with a complete change of our environment. Now, I understand that many people aren’t in complete control of their environment (teenagers, for example, or people living in a family) … but we can still make some changes that will help.
The more of these kinds of changes we can make, the better we’ll do against the forces above. See if you can make more changes than you normally would consider — sometimes when there’s a will, there’s a way to make it happen.
Imagine this: you go through your day with only healthy options to choose from, and you have healthy meals already prepared (you made them on Sunday). You wake up, grab a healthy breakfast, take your healthy lunch to work, avoid the unhealthy places your coworkers eat and instead read a book and eat your delicious lunch. You have healthy snacks packed for the afternoon when your energy starts to dip, and when you get home you have a healthy dinner to heat up and enjoy. At night, you have fruits you can eat if you get hungry.
With your environment changed, you will default to healthy most of the time. Then when you don’t have a choice, you can just do your best, and not worry too much about it.
Some changes to consider making to your environment:
- Get rid of all unhealthy food in your home, and only have healthy options. If you can’t do this completely, do it as much as you can. Talk to the others in your home and ask for their helpl.
- Plan out some healthy meals and prepare them in advance on Sunday.
- Have healthy snacks available to you whenever you might get hungry.
- Bring a healthy lunch to work. Find a nice spot to enjoy this meal.
- Find some restaurants with healthy options that you can go to if you want to go with friends. Tell them not to let you order anything but the choices you’ve chosen ahead of time.
- Prepare or buy something healthy to bring to parties or family gatherings. Avoid hanging out near the unhealthy stuff.
- Plan ahead and have healthy stuff to bring for when you travel.
- Have healthy options available at work, and avoid places where they have unhealthy stuff.
- Get your friends and family to join you on your quest for healthy living. Start a challenge. Ask for their help. Don’t get frustrated if they don’t join you or don’t stick to it.
These are just some ideas. You might come up with others, but these are some examples of changing your environment to support a healthy change. It’s more important than we often realize.
Powerful Method #2: Get Some Support & Accountability
The next most powerful thing you can do to make a change is to make it social — get friends, family and/or co-workers to give you support, join a challenge with you, or hold you accountable for the changes you’d like to make.
This is true for any habit, but it’s especially true for eating habits. That’s because our friends, family and co-workers are often the biggest influence on us when it comes to eating. If they are trying to make us eat dessert all the time, we will have a hard time resisting that for very long. But if they’re eating healthy meals and snacks with us, or at least encouraging us to do so, we will probably do a lot better.
Some suggestions here:
- Join my Sea Change Program to get some support and accountability — we’re doing the Healthy Eating Challenge right now, and it is set up to help you be a success.
- Create a challenge and see if friends and family will join you. Or make it a challenge for your office.
- Get an accountability partner or two, and report to each other every day. Or at least every week.
I highly suggest you join us in the Healthy Eating Challenge in Sea Change — I’d love to have you.
Three Other Things We Can Work On
While those are the two most powerful methods of change, there are a couple things that are also pretty important, that I should mention:
- Change your coping mechanisms. A problem that many of us have is that food is our way of coping with stress, feeling bad, and so on. It’s been that way for years. To overcome this old habit, we have to find new ways of coping with stress, anger, sadness. When those feelings come up, you have to consciously choose to deal with them in a new way: talk to someone, go for a walk or a run, take a hot bath, have some tea, meditate. Do this consciously for awhile and soon you won’t need the food to cope. The same is true for rewarding yourself for hard work, by the way.
- Practice self-compassion. What do we do when we feel bad about ourselves? Again, we often cope by going to our comfort foods. But instead, we can start to practice self-compassion. Do this regularly and you won’t need the food to feel better as much.
- Practice mindful enjoyment of healthy food. People don’t like to eat healthy food if they think of it as a sacrifice, of eating food they don’t like just because it’s good for them. Instead, try to be mindful as you eat the food, and find something to enjoy about the experience. Can you slowly learn to adore the taste of fruit, of avocadoes, of greens sauteed in garlic and olive oil? Eat slowly, mindfully, and with joy.
These might sound like a lot of changes to make, and they are. But you don’t have to do them all at once. Make it a project to do some of these changes each week, slowly practicing the new coping mechanisms, slowly changing your environment, slowly getting more support and accountability.
This is doable. You are worth it.