Despite all the headlines about the latest trendy diet clogging up your news feed, experts say diets don’t actually work. “Diets are not only unsustainable—any diet you go ‘on’ you will eventually go ‘off’—but dieting can actually increase your risk for gaining weight,” says Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness in New York.
The research backs her up. Last year, researchers investigated one of the most high-profile examples of diet success stories ever: The Biggest Loser contestants. They found that six years after their on-camera diets, contestants had gained back most of the weight, according to the findings published in Obesity.
Why? Diets, which by definition are restrictive, aren’t sustainable. “It’s like holding your breath under water. You can do it, but you can’t just breathe normally when you come up—you have to [overcompensate to] catch your breath. We’re like that with food too,” says Jenna Heller, a registered dietitian who works with students at Arizona State University. “If you think you couldn’t stick to the diet over the next six months or year without decreasing your quality of life, I really encourage you to rethink it and find a bit more moderation.”
The importance of your eating environment
Science says that, instead of dieting, being more mindful of our internal and external cues at mealtime is a better—and easier—way to make more nutritious choices. Instead of trying to follow strict rules, you’re using cues to trick yourself into eating healthier.
And those external cues are more powerful than you might think. In fact, the research (which we’ll get into in a minute) shows your food environment plays a major role in how you eat—for better and for worse.
The cool part? That means you can “set up your environment so that it helps you eat better,” says Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and one of the leading researchers on how your environment affects your eating habits.
The key to making more nutritious food choices is ridiculously straightforward. All you have to do is a little reorganizing to “change the convenience, the attractiveness, and how normal it is to eat the right foods,” says Dr. Wansink.
Here are six expert-backed ways to make it happen.
1. Keep nutritious noshes in plain sight.
“If you’re going to have food visible, make it [healthy] food,” says Dr. Wansink. This means that instead of stashing a three-pound bag of M&M’s® on your desk, put a fruit bowl near your study spot. You’re three times more likely to eat the first food you see in the cupboard than the fifth food you spot, according to a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research.
Move fruits and veggies to a prominent spot in your fridge (i.e., not in the drawers) so you’ll see them every time you open it, or toss a bag of chopped veggies in your backpack so you’ll be less tempted by the presence of the vending machine between classes.
“I struggle with this, especially here at college, because there are many unhealthy options and I would have to get the fruit myself. But I do find having healthy snacks versus chips or cookies nearby helps me eat healthier. Keep granola bars in your room all the time!”
—Laura L., recent graduate, College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts
“I always bring back pieces of fruit (apples, oranges, bananas) from meals and leave them on my desk.”
—Andrew A., first-year undergraduate, Stanford University, California
2. Hide your junk food.
On the flip side, keep the not-so-nutritious stuff out of sight. Put any junk food in a hard-to-reach cupboard, or hide it behind more nutritious foods in your snack drawer so you’ll have to go through the dried fruit and trail mix to get to the candy stash.
If you keep a few ice cream bars around as a well-earned study treat, make sure you hide them in the back of your freezer so you don’t see them every time you open it.
“I typically keep unhealthy foods in a drawer or a place that’s difficult to access. This ensures that I have to put in more effort to eat [them].”
—Brian N., first-year undergraduate, Stanford University, California
3. Practice portion control.
Rather than eating straight out of the bag, pour your chips into a bowl or portion the goods into mini baggies so you can grab them on the go. Research shows that something as simple as eating from a smaller package can make a difference in how much you consume—we’re talking 30–50 percent less than if you were to eat straight out of the bag, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
4. Downsize your dishes.
The size of the bowl or plate you use is important too—the smaller the dish, the less you’re likely to eat, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. When two groups of students were instructed to serve themselves from either a large or small bowl of pasta, those using the large bowl ended up eating double a normal portion size. The lesson? Ditch your giant popcorn bowl in favor of properly portioned dishes.
“I’ll use a smaller plate or bowl so I won’t immediately serve myself a portion that’s too big. If I really want more, I can go back for more.”
—Jessica S., second-year graduate student, Long Island University, New York
5. Tidy up.
Clean up your eating space, whether that’s your mini-fridge, your pantry, or your kitchen. Messy spaces tend to stress us out, which could lead us to reach for more sweet snacks, suggests a 2016 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior.
Keep your snack cupboard organized with plastic bins, and if your eating area doubles as a workspace, make sure rogue papers and notes are confined to a neatly stacked pile.
6. Choose the right container.
In a now-famous experiment, the behavioral science experts at Google conducted a small study in their own office to see if they could get Google employees to eat fewer M&M’s®. They found that the simple act of placing the candy in an opaque (non see-through) container versus a clear jar made a huge difference: Employees consumed nine fewer packages of M&M’s® than usual over a seven-week period. Following the “keep healthy foods in sight and stash the junk” rule, put your candy stash in dark containers and leave the glass jars for more nutritious snacks, like dried fruit and nuts.
Jenna Heller, MS, RD, dietician at Arizona State University.
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness in New York and author of Three Steps to a Healthier You.
Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell University Food and Brand Lab.
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