We live in a society where it’s easy to eat unhealthy and become overweight. We are surrounded with unhealthy food that is easy to get and inexpensive.
All of us are busy, and people often resort to eating fast food because it’s convenient and easy. Even if you want to eat healthier, your environment makes it difficult.
Unhealthy eating is encouraged
Not only is it easy to eat unhealthy food in our society, it’s also encouraged. Food advertising, food packaging and product placement all encourage us to buy the energy dense foods that are making us sick and overweight.
Energy dense junk food is also highly palatable. Full of fat, sugar and salt, these foods (e.g. donuts, chips, burgers, fried food) are easy to over eat. Even small portions of these foods contain huge amounts of calories. You don’t need to be eating huge quantities of these foods to gain excess weight. Simply eating them regularly will cause weight gain.
Obesity is not about laziness
Obesity isn’t due to a lack of self-control or weakness. People who are overweight aren’t lazy. Your inability to stick to healthy eating is not due to a lack of willpower.
The high energy dense foods that are readily accessible and highly palatable are to blame. These foods have a high amount of calories in a small amount of food, making weight loss almost impossible, and weight gain easy. Particularly if these foods are eaten regularly.
Being aware of how your environment influences what you eat can help you make better decisions. If you want to make changes in your diet and lifestyle, you need to look at the effect your environment has on your food decisions.
Your environment controls your eating
Your environment has a huge impact on what your are eating. If you put yourself into an environment where unhealthy food is readily available and encouraged, you’ll most likely eat it.
In order to succeed at healthy eating, you need to change your environment. You need to change what is around you, or you will continue to eat the same food that you have always eaten.
How can you do this?
You can’t rely on willpower
Making changes to your habits is hard.
It’s a faulty assumption that we fail to change because we don’t have enough willpower or self control.
Even if you want to, you can’t rely on your willpower because it fails when you need it most. Research shows that willpower declines when you’re tired and hungry and the glucose levels in your body is low (Gailliot et al 2007).
It’s so hard to have willpower against highly palatable, unhealthy food when it’s all around us and everyone else is eating it. Particularly if you have been eating this food for most of your life.
When and where people find it hardest to eat healthy
A study recently published in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine (Forman et al 2017) followed 189 adults over a 12-month weight loss program. The researchers wanted to find out the times and places when participants had ‘lapses in adherence’ (when they couldn’t stick to their healthy eating program).
The study found that for most people, they had trouble eating healthy at these times:
- At home
- In the evenings
- On weekends
- When they felt hungry/deprived
- In the presence of palatable food.
What we eat is based on habit
Habit is one of the most powerful predictors of eating behaviour (van’t Diet et al 2011). Research has found that your behaviour is based on situational cues – what is happening around you, and what is in your environment.
When your behaviour is habitual you require little information to make decisions. So your intentions are probably not going to change your behaviour.
If you intend to eat healthier, you won’t achieve it without changing your situational cues – what is happening in your environment. You need to change your environment in order to change your habits.
Make unhealthy eating difficult
Where is your greatest environmental influence? For most of us it will be our homes – like the research showed. You need to make ‘lapses in adherence’ difficult when you’re at home, or wherever your greatest influence is. And you want to make it easy to eat healthy during those times. How can you do this?
Your environment influences your behaviour
Al Switzler is one of the authors of Change Anything: The new science of personal success. He has spent many years researching behaviour change, and has found six factors that influence people’s behaviour. Your environment is one of these factors. His research shows that if you change your environment, you can change your behaviour. Switzler says to “Make your good behaviour easy and your bad behaviour hard.”
Listed below are three actionable steps that you can take to change your environment and succeed at healthy eating. These three steps will allow you to take control of your environment instead of letting your environment control you. These steps will allow you to make healthy food your go to choice instead of the food you have always been eating.
Step 1: A Kitchen Makeover
The biggest environmental influence for most of us will be our kitchen. So the first step in eating healthier is to makeover your kitchen. This means getting rid of the junk food. If it’s not there, you won’t eat it. Throw it out or give it away.
When evaluating whether to keep an item or ditch it, ask yourself: Will this improve my overall health? If the answer is “no” or you’re not sure, then get rid of it.
Change your kitchen, improve your health
Brian Wansink is a psychologist at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating and Slim by Design. His research shows that by making a few small changes in your kitchen environment, you can improve your eating and potentially lose weight and improve your health.
Your weight is influenced by what is on your counter
Wansink’s research found that he could predict people’s weight by what foods were visible in their kitchen. If there was a box of cookies or bag of potato chips, occupants weighed 4kg more than the norm. If cereal was visible, they weighed 9.5kg more. Any soft drink—even one can of diet cola—and they weighed 11kg. more. If they had a fruit bowl, on the other hand, they weighed 3.5kg less.
So this shows that what we have in our kitchen, particularly the food that is visible, has a huge impact on our health.
Action steps for a kitchen makeover:
- Remove the junk food from your kitchen (e.g. sweets, soda, fried foods and highly refined foods). Give it away or throw it out.
- Keep your kitchen bench tops clean and clutter free
- Have only a fruit bowl on your bench tops
- Prepare healthy snacks to keep on hand. Veggie sticks, fresh fruit ready to eat, hummus.
Step 2: Meal Plan
Healthy eating is much easier when you make a meal plan for the week. When you know what you are going to eat for dinner and you know you have everything to make it, then it’s more likely going to happen. You know the saying. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.
Meal planning is particularly helpful if you are just starting out on a plant-based diet. Coming up with ideas for what to cook can be time-consuming if you aren’t familiar with this way of eating.
Meal planning will also reduce the scenario where you are tempted to buy take out. If you know what you are having for dinner and that you have everything you need in your fridge and pantry to make it, then it’s probably going to be just as easy to cook your food yourself as it is to go and buy it.
And another bonus is that you are probably going to save money if you cook your meals yourself. I’ve heard lots of people claim that healthy plant based eating is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. The healthiest foods are actually the cheapest, e.g. legumes (beans, lentils), wholegrains (brown rice, oats, barley, pasta), potatoes and seasonal fruits and vegetables. If you stick to these staples then it won’t be expensive.
Here is a guide for writing up a weekly meal plan.
Meal Planning Guide:
- Keep your meals simple (particularly on weeknights).
- Write up your menu plan (involve your kids if you have them). You may like to just include dinners for the week, or maybe all meals.
- Make a shopping list and go shopping for everything you need for the week.
Your meals don’t need to be complicated. They can be simple, fast and tasty. It’s better if you do keep them simple.
Even if you aren’t ready to go completely plant based, you can still make plant based foods the basis of your meals. Research shows that the healthiest and longest living people on earth eat a plant based diet. They may have included small portions of meat and animal products in their diet, but it wasn’t the basis of their diet.
A simple tip for thinking of what to put on your meal plan each week is to keep a reference list of meals on hand that you and your family enjoy. Type it up in a spreadsheet, or keep a printed copy on your fridge door. Refer to it when you are writing up your menu plan.
STEP 3: FOOD PREP
If you want to make sure that you stick to your meal plan then food prepping ahead of time is going to help you do that. Healthy plant-based cooking can be time consuming (particularly wholegrain and legumes), so cooking some of your food ahead of time will save you heaps of time each evening.
You can pre cook entire meals (e.g. soup, curry stew) or just precook parts of your meal (e.g. rice, beans, dressings, sauces).
It also helps to have pre-prepared snacks on hand (e.g. fresh fruit, veggie sticks, hummus). These are particularly helpful if you are going out and need to take something with you. Or if you run out of time to eat breakfast before you go out the door in the morning.
What if I have a setback?
We aren’t always going to make the best decisions all the time. There will be situations where you eat food that you know isn’t good for you. So you need to have a plan with how you will deal with the situation. Look at it as an experience to learn from.
What can you do differently when you are faced with the same situation next time? Maybe you can take your lunch to work so you don’t have to buy it. Or take your own food to a party or barbecue. Keep the chocolate out of the house. Call a friend and ask them to keep you accountable. Join a Facebook group with like-minded people.
You don’t need more willpower in order to eat healthier. You need to take control of your environment instead of letting your environment control your habits. Choose what you want to eat and make the changes in your environment so that it can happen.
Make healthy eating easy and unhealthy eating hard. The more you stick to a healthy way of eating, the easier it will become.
Here is a reminder of some action steps for you to take control of your environment to eat healthy:
- Get rid of the junk food from your kitchen and pantry
- Keep the fridge and pantry well stocked with healthy food
- Write a meal plan for the week
- Keep your meals simple
- Write a shopping list & go shopping
- Prepare some of your food ahead of time
Forman, E.M., Schumacher, L.M., Crosby, R. et al. Ecological Momentary Assessment of Dietary Lapses Across Behavioral Weight Loss Treatment: Characteristics, Predictors, and Relationships with Weight Change. ann. behav. med. (2017). doi:10.1007/s12160-017-9897-x
Patterson, K, Grenny, J, Maxfield, D, McMillan, R, and Switzler, A. (2012) Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success.
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