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Trick Yourself into Healthy Eating

Swap rigid diet rules for simple nudges and change eating habits for the better

Every January, a huge diet wave hits the Western world. As we finish the last box of reindeer-shaped cookies, we clear our cupboards to make space for the latest weight loss products and superfoods (have you tried chaga mushrooms, yet?). Lavish turkey dinners are replaced with wheatgrass smoothies and quinoa salads. Indeed, come the new year, millions of people make well-intended resolutions about healthy eating only to break them a couple of weeks later. And who can blame them, really? Restricting one’s diet is tough, and this isn’t helped by the confusing information available on the topic. Nutrition experts appear to change their diet advice weekly, and this is reflected in a bizarre mix of conflicting media messages around dieting. Below are some classic headlines from the British press:

It was all made-up! But I've helped over 10,000 people lose weight with my diet / The Mirror, December 2012

Eat fat and get slim: the new diet plan to lose weight fast / The Times, January 2015

It's time to kick the high-protein diet habit – before it kills you / The Guardian, March 2015

Why calorie counting doesn’t work / The Telegraph, December 2015

Crazy new fad diet may help you lose weight - but it WILL burn out your retinas / Sunday Express, April 2016

Cabbage soup comeback! Diet of vegetable broth could help you shed SIX KILOS in seven days, according to expert / Daily Mail, June 2017

Six bars of chocolate a week could cut risk of common heart condition / The Telegraph, May 2017

Forget the 5:2 diet, it's time to try the 16:8 regime! / Daily Mail, June 2018

Death of the diet: why diets make you fat / Evening Standard, May 2018

MIRACLE CURE? How a pill made from mud could be a cure for obesity – soaking up fat to stop the body absorbing it / The Sun, December 2018

Istorywriter / Pixabay
Trick yourself into healthier eating
Source: Istorywriter / Pixabay

Calorie-counting, intermittent fasting, low-carb or low-fat? Which one of the many diet regimes are you supposed to follow? Too much choice can complicate decision making and lead to choice paralysis. This holds particularly true for diet regimes, which you’d expect to be supported by science. So, here’s an idea: Instead of committing to yet another diet this January, let’s try something different to lose those pesky holiday pounds.

Change behavior with simple nudges

By using insights from behavioural economics, you might be able to “trick” yourself into healthier eating and ditch rigid diet rules for good. Research has shown that the decision environment can have a huge impact on the choices people make. You can use this fact to your advantage by strategically designing your environment to steer or “nudge” your decisions in the right direction. Nudges can target a wide range of behaviours including our eating patterns. Here are five suggestions:

1. Fruit on display

A classic approach to nudging involves manipulating the display of options. In order to promote healthy eating, it is recommended to put healthy food options within eye sight, for example displaying bowls of fresh fruit in the dining areas. By contrast, you may want to keep unhealthy choices such as cakes and chocolates hidden away or locked in a cupboard. Personally, I find the garage to be an excellent hiding place for tempting goodies.

2. Big it up

Fact is that people are bad at telling how much they’ve eaten. A key study found that people ate more soup when presented with bottomless bowls, which made it impossible to tell how much soup had been consumed. Not only did they eat more, they were also unaware of their larger portion sizes, demonstrating that the physical experience of satiety is importantly influenced by sight. What can we learn from this research? Firstly, never use bottomless soup bowls—especially not for ice cream (obviously!). Secondly, arrange your meals to make them look bigger, thereby tricking yourself into thinking you’ve eaten a larger portion and, consequently, feeling fuller. One possibility is to serve meals on smaller plates. Another trick could be to big up a modest portion of pasta with lots of voluminous salad.

3. Mirror on the wall

A rather surprising little trick is the strategic use of mirrors. Not only might it be possible to use mirror plates to make small portions look larger. Another idea involves placing a full-sized mirror behind your dinner table. Seeing your own reflection while eating can reduce the amount of food you consume. If you are forced to look yourself in the eye, you are less likely to engage in greedy behaviors and might give that second piece of pie a miss.

4. Avoid distractions

Ever finished an entire tube of Pringles without noticing? Studies have shown that many people eat more when distracted. In social settings such as dinner parties with friends, for example, people tend to focus on conversation and pay less attention to their food. While chatting away, it is all too easy to inadvertently empty the bread basket (oops!). Another source of distraction can be your TV or phone. In order to curb mindless eating, switch off your devices and simply pay attention to your food… You can play Candy Crush after dinner!

5. Convenience food

Lots of our food choices are born out of convenience. And isn’t it just convenient to buy individually wrapped granola snack bars or easy-to-share packs of bite-sized chocolates? No fuss involved. By comparison, eating an apple can be rather inconvenient. It’s an awkward size and always leaves a core of seeds to be disposed of. And surely I don’t need to remind you of the effort required to peel an orange (plus it leaves your fingers smelling zesty for hours)! However, there’s a deceivingly simple way to turn fruit into more convenient snack food—cut it up! Slice it, box it and store it in the fridge for when you need it! Sounds too easy to be true? I dare you to try it.

Of course you can come up with additional health nudges which target your very own behaviours and habits. For example, if you find yourself repeatedly buying croissants from that cute little bakery on your way to work, you might consider taking a different (less tempting route) to the office. Perhaps one that leads you past a gym or pharmacy? Another trick would be to highlight nutrition labels on food packages to ensure you are aware of the calorie contents. The mere knowledge and salience of this information can have a deterring effect. My personal favourite is to schedule a yoga session for just after lunch—this forces me to keep my meal healthy and light.

What are your secret tricks to healthier eating?

More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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More from Eva M. Krockow Ph.D.
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