In Greek mythology it’s said that Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast of his ship and put beeswax in their own ears to avoid being tempted by the Sirens song. That is, knowing that they couldn’t resist the alluring sound of the Sirens singing, which would lead to their demise, they designed a system to avoid even being tempted.
Our modern food environment is somewhat similar to this. Everyday we’re exposing ourselves to delicious, energy dense Sirens that more often than not succeed in their mission of shipwrecking our diet. Not only this but now there are apps that can bring those Sirens to us!
Over my years of consulting, it’s actually pretty rare that I come across an individual who has no idea what they should and shouldn’t be eating. It might be a little misguided at times, but most people have a grasp on what’s healthy.
What’s interesting though is despite knowing what we should and shouldn’t be eating, we still tend to make poor decisions. Even though we’re aware that particular foods are more likely to lead to weight gain and ill health than others, we still find ourselves consuming them on a frequent basis.
Often this failure to live up to our expectations is blamed upon a lack of self-control, willpower and motivation. We think “if only I had more willpower, I’d be able to say no to that brownie!”. And while restraint, willpower and being able to delay-gratification are important skills to develop, what if I told you that the most successful individuals don’t necessarily have more willpower or better self-control.
What if there was another factor that played a much larger role in your success? What if we could take a leaf from Odysseus’ book and find a way to avoid being tempted by energy dense, highly palatable foods?
And the good news is it doesn’t even involve being tied to a ship or putting candle wax in your ears.
I’m talking about your food environment.
Our food environment is essentially the environments in which we spend most of our time and which inadvertently dictate a lot of our daily choices, including what we eat.
“environment is the invisible hand that guides our decisions, habits and over time, our lives.” James Clear
Humans are creatures of habit and a lot of our habits are formed according to the environment we’re surrounded by. Environment is the reason many individuals are successful despite having normal amounts of willpower or self-control. Because they’re using it less often! They’ve created a food environment that does the hard work for them.
When we rely on willpower during a diet we’re setting ourselves up to fail because willpower is likely finite, or at least feels that way. Like a battery that’s drained over time, as you call upon it to make thousands of decisions every day. This results in what scientists call decision fatigue and is the reason why you’re more likely to make a poor choice at the end of a long, hard day than first thing in the morning.
The other problem with relying on willpower is that a lot of our daily decisions are actually made subconsciously. That is, we don’t really stop to think about them, they’re made on auto-pilot to save us time and energy.
This is essentially what habits and behaviours are. Patterns that our body has formed to save us from having to think about them every time.
Unfortunately for many of us, these subconscious patterns lead to making poor food choices that are convenient and super-rewarding to the brain.
But here’s the thing.
What has the biggest impact on forming habits and behaviours?
Rather than being a victim of our environment we can do the ol’ switcheroo and make it work in our favour. By creating an environment that is conducive to our goals and makes good decisions easier, we can save time and start forming new healthy habits.
Essentially we can reset our autopilot. Destination, your goals.
How to Design Your Environment For Success
At a fundamental level, designing a healthy food environment is about placing hurdles in front of bad behaviours and removing barriers to good ones. We want to create an environment that encourages the behaviours and habits that will lead to your goals while also making bad behaviours harder.
For example, by making energy dense, hyper-palatable foods like chocolate harder to get your hands on by either not having it in the house or placing it in a hard to get to spot, we are increasing the effort required to get it.
In fact, a study by Wansink and colleagues looked at the number of Hershey’s Kisses eaten by secretaries at work when the bowl containing them was either visible or non-visible, and within arm’s reach or just far enough away that they had to stand up.
They found that the more visible, and the closer an individual was to the chocolates, the more they ate. In fact, they ate twice as much.
We’re not talking about a walk to the shops either. The chocolates were 2 metres away. Just that small barrier decreased intake by 50%.
Now if you’re at home thinking, well good for them but I’ll stack and climb chairs to get my chocolate fix of an evening, then that may be a sign that you shouldn’t have it in the house.
What else can we do to design a food environment that favours healthy decisions?
- Smaller plates and bowls.
Research shows that when we use smaller plates and bowls we tend to see a decrease in the amount of food we eat. I’ve used this with clients and myself and found it particularly helpful if you’re someone who struggles not to eat everything on your plate (guilty).
- Have a Visible Fruit bowl with more than 2 types of fruit.
This tip fits under the making healthy decisions easier. Instead of biscuits on the kitchen bench, having a variety of fruit makes it more likely that you’ll eat more.
- No visible snack or “junk” food.
Building off the above, it’s a lot easier to avoid cravings for certain foods when they’re not staring you in the face all day.
- Healthy foods at eye level in clear containers in fridge.
This is probably my favourite. Having healthy options ready to go when you open the fridge is what I picture as the perfect scenario. Forget a never ending packet of Tim Tams, give me a forever stocked fridge of proteins, vegetables and carbs.
- Limit trigger foods at home.
Most of us will have foods that we just struggle to regulate our intake of. For me, it’s pizza and cheesecake. So I don’t put myself in an environment that tempts me and thus I actually rarely think about them.
Whatever your “trigger” foods may be. Don’t have them in the house. Just don’t. If you want them that bad, make a date of it with your partner, friends, family and go enjoy it at its best.
Let’s use ice cream for example. Instead of having a tub of Ben & Jerry’s in the fridge at home where you can grab it and mindlessly eat it while while watching the Bachelor, I prefer clients remove it from the home environment. If they really want it go to somewhere like Messina and grab a serving of really high quality gelato.
This method works for two reasons. It reduces the frequency of consumption and often the amount, because most people aren’t going to go back and order seconds when out, but will happily do so at home.
- Consider shopping online a week ahead
“Are you crazy!?” Maybe. But a fascinating study in 2009 showed that when individuals purchased groceries online a week ahead of delivery, they naturally spent less, bought more “should eat” items (healthier) and less impulse “want” items. Take action thinking about your future self and reap the rewards!
- Portion lunch out as you do dinner and put in the fridge out of sight
This is something I struggle with. I’ll portion dinner out, enjoy it and then go back into the kitchen to pack everything away. Unfortunately, as I’m doing this and the food is looking up at me with goo-goo eyes, I end up snacking on more as I pack it away.
By portioning lunches out at the same time as dinners and putting them away, it minimises the chances of this happening.
Before we wrap this up, I also wanted to give you a little homework. Think about the perfect food environment for YOUR individual goals. What does it look like? Be as specific as possible.
Make a list of the features and then come up with 3 things you could do to move your current environment at least a little bit closer. Post it in the group chat.
I can 100% guarantee that if you can apply just a few of the options that specifically apply to you that you’ll find creating healthy habits a lot easier.
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