Willpower is overrated. According to three decades’ worth of research, by relying on grit and determination to eat a healthier diet, you’re setting yourself up for a fall – not just ploughing through finite resources that you could use better on something else, but dooming yourself to an eventual crash that ends with you sitting amid piles of chocolate wrappers, blood sugar levels through the ceiling. Mercifully, though, there’s a better way. By putting systems in place to check your hunger before it starts, you’ll eat better effortlessly, leaving your willpower intact for your workout. Here’s how it’s done.
Researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands term it “behavioral ironic rebound”: try to avoid bad foods, and you’re doomed to failure. Instead, focus on eating more good ones. Chug water before you head to the Coke machine, say, or have a banana before you buy a Kit Kat. Gradually, the good stuff will push the bad out of your life.
It’s your new favorite phrase. When cravings hit, use what scientists call a “postponement strategy” to avoid the worst of it, by promising yourself a schooner/pizza/slice of apple pie at some unspecified future date. Chances are, once you’re better-fed and hydrated, that future time will never come.
Eating a triangular sandwich at your desk again? A study by Duke University in the US found that 45% of habits are repeated in the same location, cued by routines. Aim to eat a sit-down meal outside the workplace at least a couple of days a week – or even just turn left not right when you leave at lunch to break the subconscious spell.
Translation: going pre-sliced is like keeping it loaded. By buying a loaf that needs to be cut – a crusty sourdough, let’s say – you’re putting up a barrier to that next round of toast, and making it less likely that you’ll fire endless sandwiches into your gob. For next-level snack control, keep it in the freezer and defrost one or two slices at a time.
“In a study, we asked people to move all their fruits and vegetables onto the top shelf of their fridge and less healthy foods down into the crisper,” says Brian Wansink, author of Slim By Design. “After one week, they reported eating nearly three times as much fruit and veg as they had the week before.
Nobody wants to be the man making sad eyes at the cake trolley. Rather than telling yourself or others that you “can’t” have a slab of chocolate cake, say you “don’t” eat cake (or, for less finality, that it’s not something you’re doing right now). You’ll reframe yourself in your own mind as a more disciplined person.