Why is healthy eating so easy for some people and so difficult for others? If you feel like you are always failing at your diet, succumbing to sugar’s siren song or mindlessly munching through the day, your brain may be to blame.
When you develop a habit, a real physical pathway has been created in your brain. Neurons fire every time happy or unhappy chemicals are released, creating said pathways that wire you to repeat behaviours that felt good. These pathways are built when you are young, and continue developing over time.
The chemical that helps with this process, myelin, drops off after the age of 20, making it difficult to build new habits — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
The good news is that there are at least 10 easy ways to train your brain to eat healthier.
1. Understand Your Cravings
Your brain is wired for survival. When you eat something calorie-rich, like a cookie, dopamine is produced to trigger happy feelings.
“Foods that give a rush of calories from carbs and fats [like chips and cookies] set off a whole cascade of brain changes: They become strongly liked, then they start boosting addiction circuits for anticipating eating them. It’s a predictable sequence,” says says Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., senior scientist at the USDA Nutrition Center at Tufts.
They key to stop the junk-food addiction cycle is to prevent cravings before they start. “We have to reverse that process,” says Roberts. “It’s about getting people to eat good-tasting foods that digest more slowly to weaken the link between certain food tastes and the hyper-activation of the addiction centres.”
Translation? The less unhealthy food you eat, the less you come to crave it, and the more you start associating feelings of joy with other, healthier foods instead. Easier said than done, we know.
2. Keep Healthy Food Handy
Humans are programmed to go the easy route when possible. That means we tend to grab the first option available to us, in the grocery store and in our own homes. An easy, quick way to steer you on the right path is to keep junk foods out of the house and rearrange your kitchen cupboards, pantry and refrigerator so the healthiest foods are the most visible and in reach.
Consider putting out a gorgeous, colourful fruit bowl on a table to encourage your healthy-eating mindset, or keep easy-to-eat veggies — like baby carrots, sliced peppers and baby tomatoes — pre-chopped and ready to go in a tupperware for an easy, healthy snack.
3. Eat Mindfully
We all know we shouldn’t mindlessly shovel food into our mouths, and yet this is how most of us eat every day. Instead, try to think about what you’re eating in terms of specific types of foods, textures and flavours. Pay attention to all these elements as you bite, chew and swallow. One study showed that people who ate “jellybeans” enjoyed each bite less than people who ate “strawberry jellybeans,” and “grape jellybeans.” Look at what is on your plate, and think about savouring each and every bite. Give it a descriptive label if it helps!
4. Give Your Meals A Fancy Name
When you go to a restaurant, you rarely see a menu that simply reads, “Chicken with spinach.” As you prepare your dinner, start thinking of how it would appear on a menu at a restaurant. “Baked lemon-garlic chicken breasts, served with a side of wilted spinach greens and seasoned with cracked black pepper” sounds much more appetizing, doesn’t it?
5. Presentation Is Key
Display your healthiest foods in your prettiest bowls. Create beautiful, restaurant-styled plates of vegetables and fruits. Find fun and funky unconventional vessels to serve your healthy snacks in. Garnish your healthy dishes with citrus zest, sprigs of parsley, or a sprinkling of cinnamon. When you make your food a fun experience, you will be creating positive, happy experiences and reinforcing the neural pathways that will encourage you to choose that beautiful, healthy food again in the future.
6. Add More Variety
Humans love variety. By incorporating different textures, colours and spices, you keep your brain and tastebuds entertained, which in turn allows you to associate these foods with excitement and pleasure. The more pleasure you derive from your healthy meal, the more your brain will associate those foods with the “reward” center of your brain and seek to repeat that pleasurable experience.
7. Make Healthy Food Your Treat
Eating plain celery sticks and broccoli all day is no one’s idea of fun. There will be days when a salad just won’t do, so opt for healthier, cleaner comfort-food options. Maybe you tuck in to a delicious bowl of chilli you made from scratch (mmm), or treat yourself to homemade sweet potato “fries” that you baked and seasoned in the oven. The goal here is to not deprive yourself, but to enjoy the cleanest versions of your cravings as possible.
Fruit is nature’s candy, so go ahead and treat it that way! Stash red grapes in the freezer for an easy treat, or enjoy mashed frozen bananas as a creamy dessert. And, of course, allow yourself that square of dark chocolate every now and again.
8. Tall Glasses, Small Plates
When people drink a beverage out of a taller thinner glass, they perceive that they are getting more than a shorter, wider glass that holds an equal amount. When people are served food on a larger plate, they will eat more than if served on a smaller plate. These illusions can be used to trick your brain into thinking you are getting more of a food or beverage than you really are.
9. Know Your Trigger Foods
The most important thing you can do to break bad eating habits and develop healthy new ones is to apply consciousness to what you consume. Be present and questioning your choices. Ask yourself, “Is this what I am choosing to eat, or am I eating on autopilot? Why am I eating this right now? Is it for emotional reasons?” Several large-scale studies have proven consciousness to be the most significant predictor of obesity.
10. Visualize Your Goals
If you are going to be successful at dropping old, bad eating habits and starting healthy new ones, you must constantly remind yourself of the “why.” Visualization is an effective motivator, and a great way of teaching your mind to delay gratification. In one study, overweight women who practiced visualization techniques ate less after imaging themselves in enjoyable future scenarios. What’s your reason for eating clean? Imagine yourself feeling healthier, stronger and lighter the next time you want to order takeout.