Eating healthy should be simple.
After consulting with countless experts and digging through piles of nutrition research, author Michael Pollan summarized his findings with beautifuly simplicity:
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
It's hard to argue with that. And yet, if there's ever been something that's easier said than done, this must be it.
Late night snacks, junk food, binge eating and countless new diet resolutons failing after only weeks or even days...
The way most of us eat is really far removed from how we'd ideally like to eat.
Let's explore why we struggle so much with our diets, as well as what works and what doesn't work to solve this problem.
The Elephant & The Rider
If it ever seems like you're not fully in charge of your eating behavior, that's because you really aren't.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt provides us with a model that helps explain a lot of seemingly irrational human behavior:
Imagine a rider atop an elephant. The rider is your conscious mind. It's your inner voice, your rational, planning, forward thinking self. The elephant is your subconscious.
The elephant is less rational, more driven by animal instinct. It's also much bigger and stronger than the rider.
As a result, when there's a disagreement between rider and elephant, the elephant usually wins. If something scares the elephant, we start to panic and rationally knowing that this small spider can't harm you or that air travel is statistically very safe doesn't change anything about that.
When it comes to food, well, the elephant has a lot of sway. The rider may decide to start a healthy diet, but the elephant sees donuts and makes a beeline towards them.
Environment Over Willpower
So, we can't use willpower or rationalizing to overpower the elephant. If anything, trying to apply willpower to change your eating habits is a well trodden path to failure.
But then, what can we do?
Haidt proposes a solution: change the path the elephant walks on. The elephant will generally follow the path of least resistance. And if it encounters no donuts on the path, then the rider doesn't have to fight it.
For our food example, this translates to environment optimization. You can change your environment to make healthy eating much easier. Near effortless, even.
Here are 5 practical examples that have worked for me:
1) De-Junk Your Kitchen
This is the most important step for me. If there are cookies and chips and other junky foods in my home, I know I won't be able to resist them. The more convenient it is for me to eat unhealthy foods, the more often I'll do it.
So, the first and most important step in optimizing your food environment is to remove unhealthy foods from it.
This may seem obvious, but how many of us consistently do this? How often do you tell yourself "I'll keep this around for a treat" or "I won't eat all of these chips at once" or "I deserve it, this is an exception"..?
I know that when I think along these lines, I'm just fooling myself. I've made it a habit to avoid buying any tempting, unhealthy foods in the first place.
2) Plan Ahead
The elephant tends to take over when you have decisions to make and no solid plan in place. It's when you think "what should I have for dinner today?" and then go to the grocery store while you're hungry and without a clear idea of what to get.
If you plan your meals for a whole week in advance, you can buy your groceries in bulk. That's one instance of having to resist tempting junk foods. After that, you're set and the question of "what should I have today?" no longer comes up.
The next level of this is meal prepping - actually making your meals in advance, so all you have to do is grab today's tupperware from the fridge.
The principle is simple: fewer decisions = fewer opportunities for temptation to win the upper hand.
3) Add Visual Cues
I learnt a valuable lesson from designing user interfaces for software: small details matter. In fact, they matter a lot more than you might think. In an app, the tiniest amount of friction can make the difference between whether a user stays or leaves. And software companies spend millions figuring out the small details, the interactions and the visual cues in their products.
We can bring some of this attention to detail into our kitchen, to make healthy eating effortless.
Here's a simple example: I love having green smoothies as a "nutrition bomb" meal that's easy to make.
To build a good green smoothie habit, I make sure to always have the ingredients needed in my kitchen. But to take it a step further, I place some of those ingredients next to the blender, the day before I plan to have a green smoothie lunch.
The advantage here is not so much the convenience of having the ingredients closer to the blender. The advantage is the visual cue. I walk into the kitchen and the bananas, flax seed and protein powder sitting next to the blender immediately catch my eye.
It's a small detail, but it makes a bigger difference than you'd think.
4) Healthy Snacks You Love
Even if you have a super healthy meal plan, snacks may just ruin it all. I don't know about you, but I can't resist a good snack here and there.
One solution to this problem is to ban snacks completely. However, when you do this, you might find yourself wrestling with temptation on a regular basis.
A solution that works much better for most people is to add healthy snacks to your environment. Once again, the path of least resistance rules. If you crave snacks and there are none in your home, the path of least resistance leads you out the door and to the nearest grocery store or bakery.
But if you crave snacks and there's a bowl of fresh fruits and nuts sitting invitingly on your kitchen counter, you probably won't bother leaving the house just to get a slightly sweeter treat.
Take some time to figure out some snacks that are healthy and that you truly love. Whether that's just fruits and nuts or whether you figure out how to make sugar-free, healthy snacks of your own, it's worth doing.
5) Frictionless Hydration
Speaking of temptations, it's all too easy to drink all of your calories and ruin your teeth while you're at it. From sodas to frappucinos, there's no end to beverages that are as bad for our health as they are delicious.
No doubt, the healthiest way to hydrate is to stick to just water. But what if you want something more stimulating, at least from time to time?
My favorite solution for this is tea. I make sure to always have a selection of tea at home, including various herb and spice teas. This way, I can have a tasty drink at any time and it's still all natural, healthy and calorie free.
Over to You
Those are just 5 examples of what you can do to make healthy eating easy. These work for me and I invite you to give them a try. But more importantly, there's an underlying principle here: instead of fighting temptation and trying to overcome it with willpower, make tweaks to your environment.
Ultimately, the environment you find yourself in has far more influence on our behavior than most of us realize. And when you start using this to your advantage, it's like unlocking a cheat code!
So, how will you optimize your environment? And do you have any tips like these to share? Let me know by leaving a comment below!