Diet and Nutrition

How to trick yourself into eating healthier

We know the basic rules for eating healthier, but adhering to them isn’t always a cinch. Other than not bringing home unhealthy foods or padlocking the pantry door, how can we make it easier on ourselves?

Small changes

Like many things, changes start small. Research conducted by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University found that making small, easy changes to our eating habits on a consistent basis can lead to sustainable weight loss. The challenge, of course, is figuring out which changes work for each person, and how to stay with these changes long enough so they become natural habits.

The challenge, of course, is figuring out which changes work for each person, and how to stay with these changes long enough so they become natural habits.

Cornell’s National Mindless Eating Challenge (NMEC) tackled these issues with its online healthy eating and weight loss program that focused on simple eating behavior changes rather than dieting. The results confirmed that small, consistent changes in our daily eating behavior can see good results, but it can be challenging. As the summary says, “It means that finding an initial set of tips that are relevant and doable for you can be enough to learn the general principle, later come up with your own changes and succeed at reaching your goal!”

NMEC participants thought the following tips were the most effective:

  • Keep counters clear of all foods but the healthy ones.
  • Never eat directly from a package – always portion food out onto a dish.
  • Eat something hot for breakfast within the first hour of waking up.
  • Avoid going more than 3-4 hours without having something small to eat.
  • Put down your utensils between bites to slow down your eating.

Another Cornell study that collected information about healthy eating behaviors found that the C.A.N. approach is also effective. When foods like fruits and vegetables are visible and easy to reach (convenient), enticingly displayed (attractive), and appear like an obvious choice (normal), people are more apt to make healthy choices. These principles can be applied in the home by putting a fruit bowl on the kitchen table, for example.

Other tips

Trina Histon, Ph.D., has a degree in health psychology and works in obesity prevention and treatment, behavior change and emotional wellness at Kaiser Permanente. She shares her tips to improve healthy eating behaviors:

  • Use a white wine glass vs. a red wine glass because white wine glasses are smaller, which can help you drink less. People tend to forget that wine contains a lot of sugar.
  • Use smaller, 9-inch dinner plates, which can help with portion control.
  • Use plates that are a different color from the food. If the color is different, there appears to be more food on the plate. If the plate color is the same as the food (e.g. red plate with red tomato sauce pasta), it will look like there’s less food, so people may be inclined to add more food on the plate and eat more.
  • Place healthy food, fruit, yogurt, and/or vegetables in the middle of the refrigerator or at eye level. This may help remind you to eat or cook the food rather than placing it out of sight on a lower shelf.

How to trick yourself into eating healthier2

State of mind

Dr. Cristen Harris, associate professor and MSN-DPD Director at Bastyr University and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics warns that women shouldn’t try to “trick” themselves into healthy eating. She feels this implies that you’re trying to distract yourself from your body’s needs and cues. “Rather, a woman should strive to be a ‘competent eater’ – someone who listens and responds to her body’s cues of hunger, appetite, fullness, and satisfaction – and to bring the joy back to eating.”

She offers several steps to help accomplish this:

  • Banish the notion of “good” vs. “bad” foods. Of course, foods vary in their nutrient content, level of processing, and overall quality. But as soon as we apply morality to food, we’re sunk, because many people internalize the message that “I’m good” when I eat “good” food, and “I’m bad” when I eat “bad” food. When people feel bad about their bodies, they’re more likely to eat beyond fullness, often for emotional comfort. If this becomes a daily occurrence, it can negatively affect health.
  • Pay attention to how you eat. Are you a fast or slow eater? Are you doing other things while eating? Being distracted prevents you from being able to accurately gauge hunger, appetite, fullness, and satisfaction. It’s also important to slow down and not miss out on the experience of eating. People who eat meals or snacks while watching TV, for example, are likely to saunter back into the kitchen looking for something else to eat because they missed out the experience and satisfaction of eating in the first place.
  • Check in with hunger, appetite, fullness, and satisfaction before, mid-way, and after eating a meal or snack. At the start of a meal, ask yourself some questions: On a scale of 1 (starving) to 10 (stuffed), how hungry am I right now? How full do I want to be when I’m finished? What would satisfy my appetite right now – something cold, hot, crunchy, smooth, etc.? Midway through the meal, see how full you’re getting and how satisfying the meal is. Ask yourself if the food is still worthy of your taste buds. Afterwards, check in on fullness and satisfaction using the same rating scale. Reflect on where you are in terms of where you want to be in terms of comfort and satisfaction. How did you feel 20 minutes after the meal? Three hours?
  • Experiment with the meal mix. In other words, experiment with a varying balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber, all of which affect fullness, satiety, subsequent hunger, and appetite, and differently for each person.
  • Feed yourself faithfully. When people fail to feed themselves regular, sit-down meals and snacks, they’re likely to be more distracted while eating and/or go long periods without eating at all.
  • Harness the power of permission. Remove the morality from “forbidden” foods and include them in your daily repertoire. Give yourself permission to savor and enjoy a cookie if you love cookies, and don’t settle for anything less than the best-tasting and yummiest cookie that will truly satisfy you.
  • Create a comfort menu. Consistently using food to cope with your emotions can derail efforts to improve health. Instead, create a list of typical feelings and a corresponding list of things you can do instead of eating that might offer comfort.

The female role

Women tend to need “tricks” to eat healthier more than men because they’re usually the nutritional gatekeeper in the home, says Histon. They often do the grocery shopping and make healthcare decisions for the family. They also want to lose weight in the overweight state whereas men usually wait until they’re obese and have a health issue to motivate them, she says.

Finally, Dr. Harris recommends accepting your body as it is; find gratitude in all it can do. “It doesn’t mean that you love or hate it, you simply honor what it is, what it does, and the journey it is on,” she says.

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Lisa A. Goldstein

Lisa A. Goldstein

Lisa A. Goldstein is a freelance journalist with a Master’s in Journalism from UC Berkeley. She has two kids, a love of books and sweets, and wishes her metabolism is what it used to be.