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January 10, 2022

7 tips to improve your eating habits

Daily Briefing

As many Americans adopt diet-related New Year's resolutions, some find that changing their eating habits can be "an unpleasant and demoralizing experience"—but it doesn't have to be. In two articles for the New York Times, David Leonhardt and Tara Parker-Pope offer tips on approaching food more mindfully.

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Changing your eating habits doesn't have to be unpleasant

According to Leonhardt, people should take stock of their eating habits occasionally. This is especially true in the United States, where we surrounded by large portions, highly processed food, and food-related advertisements. As a result, Leonhardt writes, "If you don't occasionally stop to think about what you're eating, you will probably end up with some bad habits. And even if you are mostly satisfied with your eating, you may have mindlessly accumulated some habits that are worth dropping."

But while this process is often difficult and demoralizing, it doesn't have to be, he adds—and correcting bad eating habits doesn't need to include a restrictive diet. In fact, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that diets don't work. Research shows that food restriction can ultimately sabotage your diet by making you want to eat more, triggering your body's survival defenses, and slowing your metabolism—making it even more difficult to lose weight in the future.

Instead, Parker-Pope suggests making a New Year's resolution you can keep: "Stop dieting and start savoring your food instead."

7 tips to approach food more mindfully

To help, Leonhardt and Parker-Pope outline seven ways people can think about food in a healthier way.

1. Don't worry about every detail of the latest scientific research

Although there's an endless amount of "seemingly conflicting" studies on diet and nutrition, Leonhardt writes that the overall roadmap for a healthy diet has been "remarkably consistent" over the years. According to Leonhardt, "A healthy diet revolves around mostly unprocessed foods, like vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish and some meat." 

To that end, Leonhardt cites Michael Pollan's seven-word manifesto: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

2. Ditch restrictive dieting

Parker-Pope encourages individuals to avoid "gimmicky" weight-loss programs that attract users with the promise of the latest weight-loss methods, only to impose restrictive eating patterns once they enroll.

With restrictive diet programs, "[y]ou might take [the weight] off in the short term, but it comes back," said Traci Mann, head of the health and eating laboratory at the University of Minnesota. "It happens no matter who you are; it happens to people with great willpower and to people with crappy willpower."

Also, according to Parker-Pope, there is mounting evidence suggesting that restrictive dieting and rapid weight loss may ultimately slow the metabolism, alter hormones that control hunger, and hinder future weight-management efforts.

3. Make sustainable changes

Ultimately, to lose weight, research indicates that you must reduce your calorie intake and increase your level of physical activity, Leonhardt writes—but it's critical to find a "sustainable way to eat healthily, in terms of both quality and quantity," rather than committing to a restrictive diet.

To do that, Leonhardt recommends simply remembering "the joys of good food." For example, he points out that the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest—and "[p]eople who live in Mediterranean countries are famous for their love of eating well. It is not a sacrifice."

4. Train your brain to enjoy eating healthy food

One way to actively enjoy food while eating better is simply by eating more mindfully, Parker-Pope writes. Many weight researchers note that "intuitive eating exercises can be used to quell cravings and reshape our eating habits," she explains.

As Judson Brewer, an associate professor in behavioral and social sciences at the Brown University School of Public Health who has studied mindful eating practices, explained, "The paradigms around willpower don't work." To effectively form lasting changes to your eating habits, "You have to start by knowing how your mind works."

5. Establish rules to help you make better choices

"Most of us don't have the energy or patience to think constantly about whether we're eating right," Leonhardt writes. "It's exhausting to analyze every snack, beverage, and meal for its size and composition."

Simple rules can help train your brain to make healthier choices. "They reduce the cognitive load of healthier eating," Leonhardt writes. For instance, in his own effort to lose weight several years ago, Leonhardt simply "stopped drinking orange juice with breakfast, and [he's] never gone back."

6. Reduce your sugar intake

"Sugar is a unique problem in the American diet," Leonhardt writes. Sweeteners are added to many foods people wouldn't expect. "A focused effort to reduce sugar consumption can have big benefits—and doesn't need to leave you grumpily hungry," Leonhardt writes. 

To reduce sugar consumption, Leonhardt suggests checking supermarket labels for added sweeteners, eliminating soda, and making sure your breakfast doesn't become "a thinly veiled dessert."

7. Limit 'junk food' from your rituals

"Over time, we can develop a number of habit loops that trigger us to eat when we're bored, angry, stressed, tired after work or even just watching television," Parker-Pope writes.

According to Parker-Pope, these triggers are part of human nature. "But they are not really about the specific food or drinks."

To make your food rituals healthier, Parker-Pope suggests including better food and drink choices when you want to indulge. Specifically, she suggests options "like tea, coffee, popcorn, nuts, fruit or even a foamy nonalcoholic I.P.A." (Leonhardt, New York Times, 1/7; Parker-Pope, New York Times, 1/3)

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