Many of the strategies that you think will work don’t. Here are the surprising things that do.
We know what we should eat. Trouble is, most of us have a hard time sticking to it.
Researchers are racing to understand what pushes people to make healthier food choices. They are finding that broad resolutions to “eat better” are less effective than setting a couple of smaller rules, that eating with other people is helpful and that grocery shopping online can be better than going to the store.
The issue is urgent: The number of Americans who are overweight or have obesity is rising. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults ages 20 and older are overweight or obese, according to 2017-2018 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some surveys have found that obesity rates rose further during the pandemic.
Doctors and scientists broadly agree that a healthful diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meat and poultry—and is composed of fewer foods linked to poor health, including sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, refined grains and large amounts of red meat. Yet most of Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of vegetables, and three-quarters overeat refined grains, such as white bread, according to a government report.
“We’re living in a time where there’s food everywhere. You go to buy a hammer and there’s soda in the checkout line,” says Erica Kenney, assistant professor of public health nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “People berate themselves, but they are fighting against the environment.”
Whether you are trying to overhaul your diet, resist the peanut-butter cups in the checkout aisle or maintain the good habits you already have, research suggests some ways to make healthy eating easier.
Set one or two specific rules, and stick to them.
People are more likely to act on a plan if it consists of simple steps, psychology research has found. Having one broad goal—such as, “I’m going to eat better”—generally isn’t effective.
Pick one or two specific eating rules and stick to them—and think of yourself as someone who doesn’t do those things. For instance: I don’t consume sugary drinks. Or I don’t eat fried foods. Or I don’t eat dessert during the week.
Restricting yourself in multiple ways makes it harder to stick with good intentions, says Christina A. Roberto, associate professor of health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Conversely, setting a rule “just takes the decision out of it,” says Deborah F. Tate, professor at the Nutrition Research Institute at the University of North Carolina.
Make a grocery list, and shop online.
Making a shopping list of healthful foods can encourage you to avoid impulse buys when you are at the store, says UNC’s Dr. Tate.
Shopping for groceries online might be even more effective since unhealthy items aren’t right in front of you. Research has found that people tend to make better food choices farther in advance of eating, so the delay between making an online order and receiving it could be helpful, Dr. Roberto says.