I want to tell you about a powerful tool that often goes neglected among both fitness enthusiasts and people who are just beginning to diet. Imagine that you’re in the following situation:
You come home from work. You’re exhausted. You’re hungry. You’ve had a long and stressful day and you just don’t feel like doing anything other than sitting around. You certainly don’t feel like cooking.
Your roommate (wife/husband/etc.) picked up burgers and fries from your favorite local restaurant. The food smells amazing, and your mouth is watering. This is just what you wanted.
You have one choice: Do you eat the cheeseburger, or do you not eat the cheeseburger.
Most of you would choose to eat it. And you are FORCED to make this decision.
Even if you were not thinking about a burger and fries 2 minutes before entering your home, you are forced to think about it when you smell and see the meal.
You are FORCED to choose whether or not to eat the meal.
Now, of course, there’s NOTHING wrong with the occasional burger and fries provided you can meet your overall dietary goals on a consistent basis, but my point is this: Seeing and smelling this food FORCES you to make a choice about whether or not to eat it.
In this scenario, the environment is causing you to think about a burger and fries, and the meal is convenient. It’s right in front of you, ready to eat!
Now let’s consider a different scenario:
You come home from work, but you don’t have a burger and fries waiting for you. You DO have ground beef in the freezer buried under the frozen vegetables, hamburger buns and potatoes in the pantry, and some cheese in the refrigerator.
In this situation, you can still enjoy a burger and fries, but you’re FAR less likely to do so.
The primary reason is that you may not even think about a burger and fries. There’s nothing in your environment immediately forcing you to think about those foods.
The next reason is that there’s a higher “effort” involved in making this meal from scratch.
In this scenario, the environment is NOT causing you to think about a burger and fries.
Even if you DO randomly happen to crave a burger despite no environmental cue, the meal is inconvenient and requires time and effort to prepare. If there is a considerably easier option, even if it’s less tasty, you’ll probably choose it.
We can use this trick of human nature to our advantage when dieting.
Managing your food environment has the potential to make dieting easier. With some proper planning and minimal upkeep, you can manipulate your environment in such a way to cause you to think about food a little less, reduce the number of extraneous temptations you face, and make it easier for you to make better choices.
This is a powerful tool that gets neglected by many dieters.
Here are some simple guidelines to help you make improvements to your food environment to make diet adherence easier. There are many more environmental tactics, but I’ve selected ones that I find to be high impact and easy to execute.
1) If it’s not immediately in your environment, you’re probably not going to eat it: So keep it out. In some cases, the best decision might be to not purchase something in the first place. For example, I have a hard time moderating my consumption of ice cream, so I’ve made the choice to purchase it less frequently. I know I can still have ice cream if I really want it, and so I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself or being overly restrictive. Since making this change in my shopping habits, I eat less ice cream. This strategy is not always possible depending on your living arrangements and family dynamic.
2) Keep the calorie-dense, low-satiety food (chips, cakes, candy, etc.) in less visible and less convenient locations. For example, keep ice cream under or behind the frozen vegetables in your freezer so that you can’t see it and you have to dig for it.
3) If you want a nutrient-dense food to be prevalent in your diet, make it prevalent in your environment. For example, keep a fruit bowl in plain sight in your kitchen so you can easily see AND access it. Keep refrigerated vegetables on the front and middle shelves of your refrigerator, and keep more calorie-dense refrigerated items near the back and on top or bottom shelves (or perhaps in the crisper drawers).
4) Package the calorie-dense, low-satiety foods in opaque (not see-through) containers. Conversely, make sure fruits and vegetables are either out in the open or in clear containers.
5) Generally speaking, food variety may increase food consumption. Consequently, keep a wide variety of foods you want to eat more of (like fruits, vegetables, and lean protein sources), and keep a narrow variety of junk foods. So, for example, if you’re going to keep potato chips in the house, only keep one bag and not five different flavors of chips.
6) Try to eat meals in a non-distracted setting like at a table without a television.
7) If you are serving food out of large bowls/containers, do not keep the serving bowls at the dining table. Leave them on a counter or in the kitchen so you have to portion your food on to your plate and bring the plate to the table. This makes it less likely that you’ll keep adding more food to your plate. This same strategy applies to snack foods. If you are going to eat some snack crackers, take your intended serving out of the box, put the box away, and walk away to eat.
8) If you tend to graze, stop hanging out in the kitchen! Likewise, if you’re at a social event, creating physical distance from certain foods can be quite helpful. When I’m at an event that is serving high-calorie snack foods, I find it incredibly helpful to socialize away from the food, rather than standing right next to it.
9) Closely related to point No. 7: In your work environment, avoid keeping candy dishes and other snack foods on your desk. If there are tempting food items out in the open, do your best to avoid walking by them.
Foods that you should be eating MORE of need to be more visible, more convenient, more prevalent, and of greater variety in your environment.
Foods that you need to eat LESS of should be less visible, less convenient, less prevalent, and of lower variety (in some cases nonexistent!) in your environment.
I’ll close with two final recommendations. Some people don’t think of these tips as “food environment” topics, but I disagree.
1) Practice intelligent and regular grocery shopping.
This is one of the most important and effective habits my clients can adopt. What you purchase determines what ends up in your food environment. Make sure you purchase a variety of the foods you want to eat more of, and make sure you limit the foods you want to eat less of. When you bring those foods home, take the time to display or position them accordingly in your food environment.
2. Prepare your own food.
Finally, food preparation is a food environment strategy. If you take the time to prepare food in advance, you’ll have something healthy readily available when hunger (and temptation) strike. This is an entire topic on its own, so I’ll keep this short: When you’re making meals, consider preparing extra food that you can package and re-heat. You’ll save a lot of time this way, and this improves your food environment.
Food environment impacts us in so many ways. It’s not discussed enough in the fitness realm, and it’s not utilized enough by people trying to form better habits.
Take some time to use some of the above strategies. I’m sure you’ll find yourself making fewer choices about food, making better choices about food, and not having to test your willpower as frequently.
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