How to Eat Healthily Without Overthinking It

by Gretchen Rubin
Originally Published: 

For instance, he’s done a lot of research to show how much convenience influences whether and how much we eat. It’s astonishing how much convenience matters. The lesson for habits? Make it easy to do things right, and hard to do things wrong.

Brian Wansink has a new book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. It’s crammed with ideas on how make eating healthily easier, without even noticing that you’re making changes. The book is fascinating, surprisingly lively, and funny—this isn’t a dry review of food literature; it’s a fun read. I was very eager to hear what Brian Wansink had to say about habits in general and about his own habits.

You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits and eating. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Most of the time we’re in the middle, we’re neither hungry nor full, but if something’s put in front of us, we’ll eat it.

After conducting hundreds of food studies, I’m increasingly convinced that our stomach has only three settings: 1) We either feel like we’re starving, 2) we feel like we’re stuffed, or 3) we feel like we can eat more. Most of the time we’re in the middle, we’re neither hungry nor full, but if something’s put in front of us, we’ll eat it. I all but guarantee that most people with a few spare pounds would lose 20 pounds in a year if every time they had a craving they would announce—out loud—”I’m not hungry, but I’m going to eat this anyway.” Having to make that declaration either prevents you from eating, or if you do indulge, it prevents you from overindulging.

A second finding is that most people think they are too smart to be influenced by candy dishes, television, or the shape of a glass. When we show someone that they ate 30 percent more because we gave them a large scoop at the ice cream social, they will deny it. That’s what is so astonishing. No one wants to admit they were tricked by something as mundane as the size of a scoop or the shape of a glass. That’s what makes these cues around us so dangerous to our diets.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Most people believe they are Master and Commander of their food choices. They aren’t, but I want them to see that they can make small changes that can put them back in the driver’s seat. I want people to see that making small changes in their kitchens and routines will make all the difference with no real sacrifice.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Before both breakfast and lunch, I think of one thing that’s happened so far that day that I’m grateful for. At dinnertime, if I’m home and not traveling, I have a slightly different routine. Each person in the family (including me) shares what happened that day by answering four questions: 1) their high point, 2) their low point, 3) who they appreciate most and why, and 4) their plan for tomorrow. It gives them a chance to celebrate the good things that happen, to realize that each of us has daily disappointments, to thank a person who helped them out, and to raise their eyes toward the future. All three of my daughters get a moment in the sun, and it makes me happy to see each one shine.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When you get up in the morning, you can say “This is going to be a tremendous day,” “This is going to be an okay day,” or “This is going to be a terrible day.” Regardless of what you say, you’ll be right.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Thinking that my work is more urgent than my young daughters.

I’m in DC now because I gave a House and a Senate briefing on something related to Slim by Design. An hour ago, I was on the phone with my middle daughter, and she asked if I knew these people and I said, “No.” She replied, “But Daddy, why do you have time to read your book to strangers but not to us? We’re more important than strangers. We’re your little girls.” I’m still choked up and wiping my eyes.

Which habits are most important to you for health, creativity, productivity, and leisure?

Dreaming big, staying positive, building other people up, laughing as much as possible, and making other people laugh.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

The only way I can do it is by avoiding what I call the Tyranny of the Moment.

Generally speaking, we can commit to making a small change in life, such as not eating sweet snacks before dinner. We can write it down, cross our heart, and announce it to others. We can really, really mean it. But fast forward two days. It’s been a hard day at work; you finished a 45-minute commute; you are drained, and you know a frozen Snickers bar is waiting for you in the right corner of the freezer door. It is easy to break your cross-the-heart commitment. After all, today is an exception—it was a tough day and, come to think of it, you did not have a very big breakfast. Your plan of the year has just been thwarted by the tyranny of the moment. And the moment—this one exceptional moment—tyrannically wins every time.

Only one thing is strong enough to defeat the tyranny of the moment: Habit.

Sometimes that inner voice actually whispers to us, I know I said I’m not going to eat out of vending machines at work, but today’s different—it’s been crazy, or I know I still have to do my sit-ups today, but it’s late—I’ll do twice as many tomorrow when I wake up. I know I should have had only one glass of wine but this is really a great dinner and a really good wine. Only one thing is strong enough to defeat the tyranny of the moment: Habit.

As mentally disciplined as most of us like to think we are, nothing beats having to face facts each night and check off a box. We have very selective memories, but I use tools such as this checklist to let us know just why—or why not—we have painlessly lost two pounds on the 31st of the month. This basic approach works well for other habits also.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

80 percent Upholder, 20 percent Rebel.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?

Since I try to invest heavily in other people, I’m tripped up when a key relationship isn’t going well; it’s tremendously disorienting. A while back, my wife and I were having difficulties, and it threw me out of balance so much that it distracted me away from my mindlessly healthy routines. One day I woke up and realized I had gained over 20 pounds.

I went back to these routines (they’re in Mindless Eating, Chapter 10), and lost the pounds in about 4 months. It was an unfortunate reminder about what happens when we let healthy habits—and relationships—slip.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, when you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

You were raised in Kansas City and I was raised up the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa. My parents were extremely loving and supportive, but there wasn’t an expectation I would go to college or the means to very easily make it happen. I did go to college, and to try and support myself, I struggled selling Amway. I worked all the time but I blamed my lack of success on being too shy, not smart enough, not having a suit, and so on. One day a friend gave me a copy of an old book called The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz.

This book gave me a transforming level of confidence in myself and my mission. I re-read that book ten times within the first month and at least 30 more times since. Within a semester my grades went from a 2.5 to a 3.8, I met my wonderful college sweetheart, my college money worries disappeared, I ran for the student senate, and I committed myself to becoming a professor who changes eating behavior. Oh, and I bought a suit.

I’ve given that book to over 200 people over the past 25 years. Most think it’s pretty hokey, dated, or simpleminded. I understand that, but I would also understand if, as a result, their thinking never grew any bigger than the thinking they inherited from their parents.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Embrace. That was the theme of Mindless Eating, and that’s also the theme of Slim by Design:

For 90 percent of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mindful eating—our lives are just too crazy and our willpower’s too wimpy. Instead, the solution is to tweak small things in our homes, favorite restaurants, supermarkets, workplaces, and schools so we mindlessly eat less and better instead of more. It’s easier to use a small plate, face away from the buffet, and Frisbee-spin the bread basket across the table than to be a martyr on a hunger strike. Willpower is hard and has to last a lifetime. Rearranging your life to be Slim by Design is easy.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Absolutely. This happens all of the time. I am a very coachable person. Sometimes that coach is a five-year-old daughter who tells me to drink less Diet Coke, and sometimes it’s an author whose book I’ve read over 40 times.

To read more by Gretchen Rubin, visit her site.

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