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4 Easy and Smart Ways to Make Healthy Choices Automatic

Does this ring a bell? Every time you go out to eat at your favorite Mexican joint you promise yourself you’ll avoid eating a single crispy, delicious tortilla chip and that you’ll order yourself the veggie fajitas, but instead you munch on chips until your entrée (which, uh, turns out to be the deep fried chimichangas) comes.

Or, maybe this sounds familiar? You had a long, hard day, and the only thing on your mind is comfort food. Maybe you can’t wait to dive into a big bowl of macaroni and cheese, or maybe you’re just sure that chocolate cheesecake is going to melt your troubles away. Of course, after you eat the comfort food you regret it, but still, the same scenarios happens again and again.

Well, how about some evidence-based, research-backed solutions that will help make healthy choices a bit more automatic? Dr. Traci Mann of the Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota has spent over two decades studying this stuff, and here are four of the strategies she describers in her book Secrets From The Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again.

  1. Make healthy choices automatic. Part of the struggle with eating healthy is that you have so many darn choices. If you can establish a healthy choice as a habit, though, choices won’t come into play as often (like when you get in your car and put on your seat belt without thinking). But how do you do it? You need to pair a behavior, like ordering a salad, with a cue, like eating at your favorite restaurant. Do it often enough and you’ll perform the behavior without thinking. Other ways to pair a behavior with a cue are serving yourself one portion of a snack or meal and putting the rest away before your meal, always buying fruit when you pass a fruit stand, or always packing almonds for your afternoon snack. Pick a behavior you want to start engaging in, then pick a cue to go along with it (like walking past the fruit aisle or getting your lunch ready for the next day), and just start putting them together. Do it enough times and it should start to become automatic.
  2. Make unhealthy choices harder. Back to the chips and chimichangas example from the beginning of this article: Your cue is the Mexican restaurant, and your behavior is to eat lots of chips and order something deep fried. To change this behavior, avoid the cue all together, at least for a while. Or, try a new Mexican restaurant where you’ve never been, and as soon as you sit down say “hold the chips.” If you always pick up a candy bar when you’re in line at the grocery store, you must avoid the cue (the line with all the candy in it.) Try the self-checkout aisle instead, or have someone else pay the bill while you wait outside.
  3. Create an automatic plan for irregular situations. If you are going to a party and know you’re probably going to end up overdoing it on the crab puffs and mini quiche, try creating an if-then statement ahead of time. Make it specific, for instance, “if I go to a party, then I will keep a glass of seltzer in one hand and a cocktail napkin in the other.” When your hands are full, it’s quite difficult to grab more crab puffs. Sounds simple, but research shows it works. You can also try “If I go to a buffet, then I will fill my first plate with fruits and vegetables” or “If there is an office birthday party, then I will sing happy birthday and excuse myself before they cut the cake.”
  4. Remind yourself that comfort food isn’t actually comforting. Dr. Mann has done a number of studies on comfort food, and the bottom line is this: comfort food isn’t any more comforting than a “neutral” food. In fact, it’s not even any more comforting than no So the next time you think to yourself, “I sure would feel better after eating a steak/deep fried chocolate chip pound cake/bowl of whipped cream,” remind yourself that it actually will not make you feel better. In fact, it may even make you feel worse, as you might end up with a guilty conscience.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.