The following is a guest post from Benyamin Elias, a fitness and habits coach at Routine Excellence. Take it away man …
I didn’t even use a blender. I just tossed a couple of scoops of vanilla ice cream into a glass, added some milk, and poked at it til it was soft enough to drink.
Sometimes I splurged and used mint chip. Once I mixed things up and used orange juice instead of milk (it tasted kind of like a creamsicle).
Whether you’re following IIFYM or intuitive eating, it’s easy to see that surviving off milkshakes is unhealthy. But it’s also easy to dismiss my behavior as me “having no willpower,” “having a sweet tooth,” or just “being lazy.”
In truth, there’s more to it than that. Understanding the psychology of my milkshakes (and any unhealthy meal or unintended snack you’ve ever eaten) can help you eat better, feel better, and look better.
My milkshake behavior can be explained in just a few words:
It was easy to make milkshakes and it was hard to cook.
It’s dangerously easy to underestimate the effect of your environment on your eating, but research consistently shows that even simple changes can affect how much food you eat.
In one study, researchers placed a bowl of candy in several places around an office. The bowl was clear in some conditions and opaque in others. Similarly, the bowl was positioned either two meters from the person’s desk or directly on the desk.
The location and type of bowl both affected candy intake—people ate more food when the bowl was clear and on their desks. Introducing physical barriers (distance) and psychological barriers (lack of visibility) reduced how much candy people ate.
As importantly, the people studied didn’t think they were eating any differently from normal.
Another study reinforces the idea that we don’t eat food because we’re hungry—we eat food just because it’s there.
Attendees of an after-lunch movie were given large and small bins of popcorn. When they left the movie, researchers measured how much popcorn was left in their bins.
As a twist, this popcorn wasn’t even fresh. It was five days old! But people with larger bins consumed more popcorn than people with smaller bins. Even though it was stale and they had just eaten lunch.
You don’t eat because you’re hungry. At least, you don’t eat only because you’re hungry.
Knowing the key psychological principles that affect your eating can help you stop snacking or getting unhealthy takeout.
Increasing barriers to unhealthy food will reduce how much of it you eat. Decreasing barriers to healthy food will help you eat more of it.
My milkshake story is a good example. I ate milkshakes because:
So how can you use barriers?
It’s one thing to know that your environment can affect your eating. It’s another to actually change your environment. Here are a few ways you can use barriers to eat better.
If there’s no ice cream in the house, you can’t make milkshakes. It’s a common suggestion, but clearing out your pantry makes it a lot easier to avoid temptation.
Years after my milkshake debacle, I no longer buy sweets. Actually, I haven’t eaten a dessert in 5 years.
You don’t need to go that drastic, but creating a barrier (that you need to buy them) can help you stay consistent.
As a less drastic example, I love dark beer, but don’t keep it in my apartment. I know if I buy beer I’ll drink it quickly; I would rather go out occasionally and enjoy a beer only when I actually really want one.
Easier to reach = easier to eat. If you have to go rummaging through drawers to find junk food, it’s easier to just eat the healthier option.
I used to make a TON of mac n cheese (still do. Love the stuff). It turned to a problem when I would make a huge batch and then eat straight from the pot. With no barriers to overeating, I went to town.
Much like participants in the famous never-ending soup study, I used visual cues (clean plate, less food on plate) to decide when I was done eating.
Don’t do that. Serve your food up on a plate and go back for seconds if you need to.
If you do decide to get seconds, add a barrier. If you keep your serving dish at the table it’s easy to overeat. If you make yourself go to the stove you have time to second guess your decision and ask: “am I actually still hungry?”
I drank milkshakes partially because I didn’t know what else to make. My health, diet, and life have improved drastically since learning to cook.
I hate cooking from recipes, but one cookbook I like to recommend is the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook (no affiliation). Unlike most books, it tells you why you’re doing things, focusing on cooking principles instead of recipes. You’ll eventually learn to leave recipes behind.
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If you have leftovers or prepped meals in the fridge, you never have to worry about being “too tired” to cook. You can also heat up a meal much faster than cooking one, which removes a huge barrier to healthy eating.
Last week I prepped an entire week of lunch in about 30 minutes. Depending on the meals you choose it could take a little longer, but having those meals on hand makes it a lot easier to avoid takeout or snacking.
You now know how to use barriers to decrease unhealthy eating and eat better. But some of these tips have to wait for your next meal. What can you do in the meantime to take advantage of motivation?
Decide what to cook for your next meal (or meal prep). Burritos, pasta, roast chicken, I don’t care. Having a plan in advance makes you less likely to be influenced by your environment.
Then leave a comment. What are you having for dinner?
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