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Why do we overeat, even though we’re aware of the importance of healthier eating? In our modern food environment, we are surrounded by an overabundance of highly processed and/or hyper-palatable foods, both of which encourage us to overeat.
- With highly processed foods that are stripped of fiber, we need to take in more calories before we feel full than if we were eating whole foods. Highly processed foods offer less fullness per calorie, so they are easy to overeat.
- With hyper-palatable foods (loaded with fat, sugar, salt and/or additives, often designed in a food chemistry lab to be intentionally addictive), we take in more calories after we’re already full.
Even if we’re full after a meal, for example, it can be easy to “make room” for dessert because of the momentary pleasure it will provide.
This modern food environment is bad news for anyone trying to improve their health through diet and/or lose weight. Fortunately, we can change it.
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Stop Overeating by Adjusting Your Food Environment
Our food environment includes the food that is available to us in our surroundings; food cues such as the sight, smell, and discussion of food; and the food attitudes of those around us, including those presented by media.
It becomes extremely difficult to stick to healthy, whole foods if we:
- Keep hyper-processed/hyper-palatable foods in our homes and workplaces;
- Surround ourselves with tempting foods loaded with sugar, fat, salt, refined grains, or chemical additives;
- Choose to dine in restaurants that serve such food;
- Purposely shop in stores or wander the isles of stores that feature these foods;
- Read magazines and visit websites and social media sites that push these foods.
In many critical ways, we can re-create a healthy food environment for ourselves by paying attention to these factors.
Why Willpower Doesn’t Work
In these food environments filled with poor options, we are forced to rely on our own willpower, but this is a losing battle. Researchers have recently discovered that willpower is an easily depleted mental resource. The number of factors that can deplete our mental willpower resources are seemingly endless, from feeling fatigued or having a bad day at work to trying to suppress our emotions or having low blood sugar.
The more depleted our willpower resources, the more impulsive we are, and the less likely we are choose healthy high-nutrient/low-junk foods.
When we repeatedly make the poor food choice over the healthy one, we develop bad habits. Once unhealthy habits have set in, health worsens, body weight increases, and our motivation to eat healthfully wanes.
Set Yourself Up for Success
We are products of our environment. If we want to quit eating addicting junk food, we must ensure that our food environments are set up for success.
Since willpower depletion and the potential for bad habits is there for all of us, it’s extremely important to keep highly processed and hyper-palatable foods out of reach and out of sight, while making real, whole, healthy foods the most accessible and convenient.
Of course, we can’t completely control our food environment (a billboard advertisement will catch anyone’s eye), but there are measures we can take to make our environments conducive to our goals.
Each of us has a lot more control than we think over the foods most available to us, as well as the food cues and attitudes to which we expose ourselves.
Make Good Options Convenient, Bad Options Inconvenient
The ultimate goal in creating a healthy food environment is to consistently maintain an environment where good options are convenient and bad options are inconvenient. This is most successful when you take the following steps:
- Eliminate poor alternatives. Go through your home, workplace, car, purse, etc., and identify foods that are highly processed and/or hyper-palatable. These are foods stripped of fiber and made with refined grains or loaded with sugar, fat, salt, or chemicals. Or, they are snack foods you tend to eat for reasons other than hunger. Remove these foods. Donate them. If you absolutely cannot remove them, make them less visible and accessible.
- Speak with supportive family, friends, and co-workers about your goal. Support from as many people as are willing to support you is highly valuable.
- Neatly organize your food storage areas in a way that highlights the low-junk, nutrient-dense food options and minimizes less desirable options.
- Cook at home. Cooking meals for yourself is one of the most effective strategies for overall health and weight management. All it takes to make healthy meals at home in less time and with less money than it takes to eat at a restaurant are a few simple skills and a little practice. The benefits from knowing how to prepare quick, healthy meals cannot be overstressed.
- Have the right tools to prepare and store food efficiently. Slow cookers and electronic pressure cookers are fantastic for efficiency. Food cooked at lower temperatures is more nutritious, and throwing ingredients into a slow cooker in the morning allows you to have a satisfying dinner ready when you get home in the evening. For food storage, wide-mouth glass mason jars and Pyrex storage sets are excellent options. A highly effective way to save time is simply to make several days’ worth of food at once and store it in the refrigerator or freezer for quick reheating later.
- Always have quick healthy options for when you are hungry. Keep a bowl of fruit on the counter, stock the fridge with pre-cut vegetables, or keep raw nuts in your glove compartment. Don’t let unexpected hunger lead you away from your goals. Plan ahead so you have ideas for healthy snacks.
- Think about whether you are hungry before you eat. Use the acronym HALT. Are you Hungry? Or are you Angry? Lonely? Tired? The T can also stand for Thirsty. Many people perceive the feeling of thirst as that of hunger.
The list above represents just a small number of the many ways we can create a healthy food environment for ourselves. When we purposefully create a healthy food environment, we greatly increase our chances of choosing low-junk/nutrient dense foods over highly processed/hyper-palatable foods.
Take the time to complete these steps and develop the foundational habits that make it possible for us to heal our bodies and our minds, control our weight and our food addictions, and, ultimately, reach optimal wellness.
Originally published in February 2016 and updated.