If I took 50 random strangers to the supermarket and asked them to fill their trollies with only nutritious, health-promoting foods, I bet they could do it. In other words, most people generally know what’s “healthy.” Or good for them.
If that’s true, why are so many people sick from chronic preventable diseases? Why are they sedentary and carrying around extra body fat? Why are people not putting all those nutritious, health-promoting foods into their shopping baskets — or more importantly, their bodies?
Why are people eating so poorly?
Obviously, just knowing stuff isn’t enough to actually do stuff. Being able to memorise carb grams, or calorie tables, or the names of exotic superfoods doesn’t often change what we eat when it’s time for a hurried breakfast or a got-home-late-from-work dinner.
Those particular eating decisions have more to do with what’s (and who’s) around us — our environment.
Why is an environment so important?
Research has shown that most of our decisions are automatic, based on patterns and brain shortcuts.
Instead of slowly deciding, step by step, our brains quickly process a handful of grab-n-go inputs and pick from a recognisable menu of options. We ignore stuff we don’t like or want to see, and we’re easily compelled by shiny distractions.
In general, when it comes to engineering healthy eating, here’s the golden rule:
– Make healthy behaviours convenient.
– Make other behaviours less convenient.
People often try to “work hard” to change their habits because changing how you think and feel is hard. But why should everything be so hard, all the time? There’s no need to white-knuckle the willpower. You can actually make change much easier by simply changing your environment.
By just changing what’s around you in small ways, you can make changes without even thinking about them.
Here are 10 awesome tips — collected from some of the most experienced nutrition coaches in the world — for changing your environment.
“Hard work” and “willpower” not required.
10 ingenious environment tweaks that will improve your eating habits immediately
1. Keep the ice cream, cookies, and chocolates out of the house.
Make “laziness” work for you by making it harder and more inconvenient to reach for high-calorie, low-nutrition, easy-to-overeat foods.
If you want sweets, you have to go get them. At 10 PM, when you’re snuggled into your sofa binge-watching your favourite TV show, it’s going to be a lot harder to motivate yourself to get up and go to the shop.
2. Use a meal plan
Don’t make fresh decisions every day, or keep meal choices totally open-ended all the time. Instead, make decisions in advance and work from a template.
Pro tip: Every few days, sketch out the meals you’ll eat for the next few days. Check the list daily so you know:
3. Keep chopped, ready-to-eat vegetables in the fridge.
Put them front-and-centre so you see them and can get to them easily.
Pro tip: To make your favourite salad veggies even easier, store them “restaurant-style.” Dump chopped veggies (loose) into a container, and cover them with a damp paper towel to keep them fresh.
4. Don’t be hungry and in the supermarket at the same time.
Treat food shopping like a surgical operation: Have a plan (like your meal list from Tip 2). Get in and get out efficiently. (See if you can make a game of it.)
Pro tip: Focus on the perimeter — the produce, meat, and dairy sections. Don’t even go down the processed food aisles, so you won’t be tempted.
Shop with a basket instead of a cart to limit what you can buy (it sneaks in an arm workout, too).
5. Help your kitchen coach you.
Keep your kitchen as clean, pleasant and clutter-free as possible so you feel relaxed when you enter it (stress = cookie binges).
Pro tip: Make the fridge door a “vision board” with post-it notes reminding you of your goals, inspiring pictures, and cool looking magnets.
6. Turn your car into a locker room.
If you drive a lot, be prepared with gym clothes and a healthy snack so you don’t make counterproductive decisions in desperate moments. Keep a shaker bottle with measured protein powder and greens under the seat — just add water.
Pro tip: Keep a container of several changes of exercise clothes, shoes, and towels in your car so you’re ready to move no matter where the day takes you.
7. Keep workout gear in your face.
Have a kettlebell, resistance bands, a dumbbell or two, a pull-up bar in your home or office so you’re more tempted to use them.
Pro tip: Do “trigger training”: Leave the gear in various places throughout your house, and whenever you pass one of them, do a few reps. Over the day this adds up quickly without eating up too much time or leaving you wiped out.
8. Schedule workouts like you schedule meetings.
Put them on your calendar and treat them like any other appointment.
Pro tip: Put everything from workouts to laundry, to work meetings, to rest and recovery on your calendar so that very few things are “unexpected.” Most of our routines are pretty predictable.
9. Separate yourself from your work once per hour.
Work for 50 minutes, then step away from your desk for 10 (may we suggest a walk, some stretches, or some squats?). Cycle this for your workday. You’ll find that you still have energy and focus by the end.
10. Turn family and friends into coaches.
To create a supportive environment, be explicit with loved ones that you’re trying to eat better and get fit — and why. They don’t have to participate but ask them to help. That takes the pressure off them to do what you’re doing, and most people (especially kids) like “helping” in some way. (Kids love to nag, so hire them as your alarm clock and workout reminder.)
Pro tip: Involve your family in goal-related activities, such as menu planning, meal prep, and rep counting. This reduces resistance by giving them ownership, meaning you won’t feel you’re the “other.”
Train your environment and your habits will follow.
Basically, our brains like the thinking version of fast food — go to the place that’s most appealing, speed through the drive-thru, pick the favourite combo from the menu, slam the decision, move on to the next choice.
So we don’t actually think much when we think we’re thinking. We follow patterns, physical cues that bubble beneath our awareness, and what’s around us. That means our environment powerfully shapes our decisions, more than we realise.