Traditional advice to have a better diet is repeated so often that most of us can recite it in our sleep: eat less, move more, eat more fruits and veggies, cut back on sugar, etc. This is solid advice and can result in better health, but there may be one factor that undercuts all of your best efforts to eat well: your environment. We can have the best intentions for dietary changes, only to have our environment rise up and stop us in our tracks. Brian Wansink is a professor from Cornell who has been studying the ways in which our environment can affect diet. Here are six ways our environment can sabotage our better eating habits and how to fix it.
How your environment can affect diet
Environment = everywhere you are and everyone you’re with.
In this case, environment does not mean trees, plants, and earth’s basic biology. Environment is every setting we are in daily, from our work to our home to our car. Beyond that, environment can also mean any family, friends, or health challenges that affect health and wellness goals.
1. The office
This is a big one. Many offices have breakrooms where doughnuts magically appear every Friday or leftover pastries from the morning meeting ends up. Other challenging aspects of the office environment include birthdays, retirement, and other parties, where cake and chips are present and delicious.
Many people try to avoid these snacks and treats by brown-bagging it for lunch. While this can work more often than not, peer office pressure may result in one too many cookies at a mid-morning break or abandoning your lunch in the office ‘fridge to go grab lunch at a local restaurant.
2. The home
Believe it or not, where you store your food can be a key factor when it comes to how your environment can affect diet. It can be a big challenge to maintain a healthy environment that encourages your health and wellness goals. Keeping snack-like food in easy reach means we will eat more of it. The same goes for sugar-laden cereals and empty-calorie chips.
Later in this post, we discuss this aspect in depth because it’s the one you likely have the most control over.
3. With family and friends
There is arguably no harder environment to counteract when it comes to unhealthy eating habits than that created by family and friends.
Whether it’s picky kids that insist on nightly chicken nuggets (that you finish up after dinner), family celebrations filled with comfort food served in huge bowls, family-style, or outings with friends that include bar food and cocktails, many gatherings pose a huge challenge to healthy eating.
4. The grocery store
Grocery stores are built to get consumers to buy more expensive, pre-packaged food. The layout of the store itself moves you towards the bakery and the center aisles, where more expensive and unhealthy foods exist.
The most sugary cereals are at both adult and child eye-level (to up the whine factor when choosing breakfast). Some stores even scent their entrances with the aroma of baked goods to trigger your brain’s desire to eat. When you are hungry, you buy more food.
5. In the presence of illness
While not strictly an environment, a chronic illness such as chronic pain can be challenging for healthy eating. When you are in pain, the last thing you want to do is worry about healthy cooking and eating. Why chop vegetables and broil chicken when you can eat a box of macaroni and cheese?
As anyone with a chronic condition can attest, one of the hardest parts of the day is mealtime. Especially for chronic pain patients with children or families to feed, the struggle to find the time and energy to put healthy meals on the table can make every day feel like an uphill battle.
Eating a healthier diet with pain or another chronic illness is possible, though, and can actually reduce your pain levels moving forward.
6. The mind
Our brains are powerful tools both for and against healthy eating. While you may eat a virtuous salad for lunch, your brain may convince you that one healthy meal deserves a treat. Your brain is hardwired to crave sugary foods, and with enough of them the structure is actually changed in the same manner as a person who is addicted to cocaine. Not only is the environment of the mind fertile ground for positively re-thinking the way we approach food, it can also trick us into believing that we are eating better than we actually are.
So, environment can affect diet? Absolutely. The good news, though, is that we can change these things about our environment in very simple and practical ways.
How to create a healthier home to improve your eating habits
One way to combat all of these environmental influences is to create a healthier fridge and pantry so that meals and snacks come together in a snap. Here’s how.
Organize a healthier fridge
Organizing your fridge (and freezer!) is the first step towards creating a healthier fridge and pantry. Making a few simple changes can help you become a more efficient cook and also reduce food waste.
- Door: Many of us use the doors to store milk and eggs, but that it not the best place for these temperature-sensitive foods. Doors are the warmest part of the fridge, and milk and eggs should be kept colder to extend their useable life. Store condiments and juices in the doors of your fridge.
- Upper shelves: This is a great place for grab-and-go foods and snacks like tortillas, hummus, and leftovers. Make sure leftovers are placed in clear containers so everyone can see what’s there.
- Lower shelves: This is the coldest place in the fridge. Store temperature-sensitive items like eggs, yogurt, meat, and seafood here. Take care to keep raw meat and seafood away from other foods by keeping it in its packaging and placing it in a separate container just in case it leaks.
- Crisper drawers: Crisper drawers are designed to maintain a cool, humid atmosphere to keep fruits and veggies fresher, longer. Fruit should be stored separately from vegetables, as certain fruits and vegetables give off ethylene, a natural gas that speeds ripening. Delicate fruits like berries should be stored on upper shelves and washed right before eating. Vegetables like greens, lettuce, carrots, and celery can be washed and chopped for easy salad prep.
- Freezer: The key to eliminating food waste and making your job as a cook easier is to label and rotate anything you freeze. Freeze extra soups, sauces, and freezer meals in plastic freezer bags laid flat to optimize space. Don’t forget to label everything with what it is and the date you placed it in the freezer.
Stock up with healthy alternatives
Organization of the fridge is just the beginning. The key to a healthier fridge and pantry is in what you buy. Many of us reach for convenience foods with tons of fat, salt, sugar, and preservatives because they are just that: convenient. The trick is to make healthy eating easier. When stocking the fridge and freezer, focus on these healthy staples:
- Hummus: Store bought, or try this version if you like a more mellow flavor
- Cheese: Cut into cubes or slices
- Baby carrots, cut-up celery, or sugar snap peas
- Fruit: Berries, apples, oranges, or pears
- Yogurt: Unsweetened so you can control sugar
- Eggs: Hardboiled and not
- Nuts: Store in the freezer
- Whole grains: Cooked rice, quinoa, or barley make a great meal base
- Fermented foods: Pickles, kimchi, or kefir
- Leftover roast turkey or chicken
- Tortillas: Corn or flour, great for quick quesadillas and wraps
- Cooked pasta: Great for a pasta salad or to heat up for dinner
- Chicken or vegetable stock: Freeze in two-cup portions for quick soups
- Fish, chicken, and grass-fed beef: Freeze in four-ounce portions
- Freezer meals: Make them yourself, or find one healthier option in the grocery store for those times when cooking needs to be fast and easy
- Frozen vegetables: Frozen peas, carrots, broccoli, and spinach can all be added to soups, pasta, and rice at the last minute to round out a meal
- Bread: Bread can be frozen but should not be kept in the fridge
- Ginger: Keep a hand of ginger in the freezer
For the pantry, stick to staples to keep your options wide open:
- Dried pasta
- Variety of beans: Canned or dry, but canned is generally more convenient
- Variety of grains: Quinoa, couscous, or barley
- Canned tomatoes
- Canned vegetables
- Oils: Canola and olive
- Canned tuna
- Granola: Store-bought or homemade
- Jarred pasta sauce: For quick meals
- Mexican staples: Salsa, enchilada sauce, taco sauce, but watch for preservatives and additives
- Asian staples: Fish sauce, sesame oil, and soy sauce (or tamari for gluten free)
- Spices: Spices add flavor without adding salt, fat, or calories. Chronic pain patients benefit from anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and cayenne
- Chocolate: Dark chocolate is anti-inflammatory and can benefit the heart
As always, work within your dietary needs. Focus on the foods that are healthy for you, and ask your doctor for input when you need it.
Plan ahead for easy meal prep
Now that you have stocked a healthier fridge and pantry, make sure you use all of the food you have bought.
Even before you hit the grocery store, think about what dinners you will prepare for the week ahead. Some people may even want to cook once for the entire week or even the entire month with freezer meals for the crockpot or just to heat up quickly. Consider lunches and snacks when you make your shopping list. Meal planning eliminates waste at home and also keeps you from making impulse purchases at the grocery store.
Plan ahead for healthy meals and snacks by washing, chopping, and pre-portioning vegetables. When you bring your produce home, wash a week’s worth of lettuce, spin in the salad spinner to remove all of the moisture, and store in a freezer bag with a paper towel (for residual moisture).
As you cook for the week, make sure to store leftovers at eye-level in clear containers in the fridge. You can also go through the fridge and pantry periodically to rotate canned goods. Whenever you buy canned goods, make sure to store them towards the back of the pantry, rotating older cans to the front to eliminate food waste.
Be more intentional about eating
Beyond these tips, there are a few more things you can do that easily reframe how you eat, how much, and when. If it works for you and your family, consider:
lear your counters: Keep snack food off your counters and make it inconvenient to reach in your cupboards. If you must keep food on the counters, make it easy-to-eat fruit (think clementines, apples, and bananas).
Service matters: Mimicking the environment of a restaurant, Wansink found that serving food individually portioned onto plates instead of family-style resulted in a 19% drop in food consumption.
Size matters: Use a smaller plate to decrease portion size.
Pay attention: Turn off the TV, sit at a dinner table, and eat mindfully. Pay attention to what you’re eating, chew your food slowly, and talk about your day with your family (or coworkers). Slowing down will give your brain time to receive the signal that you are full. This will result in less overeating.
Changes to your environment to improve eating habits needn’t been drastic or difficult. Which tip can you put into place today?