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5 Ways To Change Your Environment and Boost Your Nutrition Results

This is a guest post by Alex McMahon.

Whether you want to admit or not, your environment shapes many of the dietary decisions you make on a daily basis.

The reality is you make 200 plus food-related decisions every day, and I’d like to ask how many of them you remember making?

If you answered “not many” you’re not alone. Your environments dictates your habits and behaviors to the point that they become automatic, and don’t require much thought.

People get so focused on food and diets while neglecting the surrounding environments that control their habits and behaviors.

Your food environment can help you to get leaner and healthier, or it can chip away at your health and make you fatter.

In this article, we’re taking a closer look at the common food environments that are likely to sabotage your health and fat loss goals, and how you can make small changes to engineer a healthier leaner environment to live in.

A Lean Mindset

When changing your nutrition to achieve a goal, the odds are overwhelming against you. The majority of people who start a diet won’t make it a full month before they toss in the towel.

Honestly, there’s many people who will struggle to make it out of the first week, let alone reach their goals.

What separates those that can stick with a dietary change for a long period of time, and accomplish their goals is their mindset.

You might assume that people who have great transformation pictures on the internet entirely overhauled their entire life at once, and while those stories exist I want to help paint a different picture for you.

Small Hinges Swing Big Doors

Adopting habits in a sustainable fashion that’s appropriate for you as an individual will always beat a month of perfection followed by three weeks off the wagon.

If you want to improve your life and get healthier, it’s not about being perfect for 30 days straight but instead making progress on a consistent basis.

The people who have the best results are the folks who chip away at their goals month after month not trying to be perfect but making steady, consistent progress.

Those small hinges (consistent habits) swing big doors (your goal) when it comes to changing your food environment and in turn your health.

Next, we’re taking a look at the most prominent food environments people spend the majority of their time in and examining how these are helping, or hurting your goals.

1.) Your Home

Aside from the eight hours you spend at a job, the majority of you likely spend a significant amount of time at home.

Depending on your food environment at home this can be a good or bad thing.

Let’s say you come home after an especially long stressful day at work. You’re hungry, tired, angry and don’t want to make any more decisions, especially about what to eat.

It just so happens when you get home there’s a basket on the countertop with cookies and chips in it. At this point, the likelihood of you dipping into that cookie and potato chip basket is especially high. It’s right in front of you, it’s tasty, and you have easy access to it.

However, what if you came home and instead of the cookies and potato chip basket there was a bowl of fruit with apples, bananas, and pears on the countertop.

By replacing the cookies and chips basket with a bowl of fruit, your default choice would be to have fruit. This is a perfect example of how your food environment can shape your choices without any thought.

How easily accessible foods are, and where you place them in your home can impact your consumption of them without thinking twice about it.

There are three areas that are pivotal to assess when it comes to improving your food environment at home: The kitchen, your dining table, and general snack proofing.

The Kitchen

The countertops in your kitchen can be a booby trap for snack foods that are easy to overeat mindlessly.

What you keep on your countertop will get eaten with a high frequency because it’s in sight, and easily accessible.

Rather than keeping the easy to overeat snack foods on the countertop, simply replace them with a fruit bowl like in the example above.

While a kitchen filled with junk food creates problems, having a completely empty kitchen can be just as hazardous.

You’ll be more likely to go out to eat and get an entire meal even if you’re just hungry for a snack, and will eat more than intended.

The easy solution is to keep cut up fruit and vegetables in the fridge along with high protein foods you can grab for a snack like cottage cheese, greek yogurt, string cheese, high-quality deli meats or hard boiled eggs.

The fruit and vegetables with higher protein foods is a great choice for squelching hunger and staying fuller with more nutritious choices.

Make sure the foods you want to eat more of are front and center in the fridge, and in clear containers. This way they’re the first thing you see, and the easiest to grab.

When it comes to the actual arrangement of your kitchen making it a less lounge friendly environment will help you to do less mindlessly munching as well.

To make your kitchen less lounge friendly remove distractions like TVs, laptops and iPads. You can also move unnecessary seating or workstations to another area of the house.

Redesigning Your Dining Table

An interesting trend was observed in multiple behavioral studies that showed people match their eating habits to those around them in social situations.

If everyone is a getting a second plate of food, and you’re already full after one plate, chances are good you’ll match the social norms of getting a second plate of food.

I think there is a unique point to be made when you think of how the people around you can influence your dietary habits and considering them part of your food environment.

To help with this, sit next to the slowest eater in the group, talk with people around you and put your fork down between bites.

Ask yourself am I really hungry for more food or am I just eating because others are?

Plates, Bowls, Utensils and Glasses

Another important, but looked over aspect to consider when improving your food environment is the size of the plates, bowls, glasses and utensils you use.

The exact same portion of food on a larger or smaller plate is going to look like more or less food because we unconsciously examine how much room the food takes up on the plate to gauge the portion sizes.

When you eat off larger plates and bowls, you’ll unconsciously think that larger portions are normal and eat more because the food looks smaller in comparison to the plate/bowl.

When it comes to bowls, plates, glasses, and utensils, think smaller, so normal portions appear larger and make your brain perceive it as an adequate amount of food.

Food Proximity

If you serve all the food for your meal from the table and leave the extras right in front of you, the propensity to mindlessly eat will dramatically increase.

To prevent this, serve your food in the kitchen from the stove or counter top, and leave the serving dishes there while you eat.

Having to get up and walk into the kitchen for seconds is usually enough to make people consider whether they really need that second helping of food.

You can also use this principle to your advantage by putting the foods you’d like to eat more of directly on the dining table such as salads or roasted vegetables.

2.) Sneaky Snacks

For many people, their habits in-between meals are what sabotage their fat loss goals.
Studies have shown that people unintentionally under-report their food intake by upwards of 40%.

It’s not that these people are trying to be deceitful, but they lack portion and calorie awareness.

Over time, the granola bars, mixed nuts, and samples at the grocery store that go unaccounted for add up. These “missing snacks” can cause stalls in your fat loss progress without you even realizing it.

You can discover these sneaky snack habits by recording every single bite of food or liquid you drink for a week in a food journal of my fitness pal.

This way you can objectively identify everything you ate or drank during the day and recognize what might be holding you back that you didn’t account for previously.

Make The Undesired Habit Less Convenient

Lots of people have unhealthy habits they know they need to break to make progress, but habits become ingrained and are difficult to change.

This is where building in a guard rail that makes your unhealthy habits less convenient or enjoyable can help.

I had a client who was eating fast food five plus times a week, and wanted to give it up but was struggling with it.

She found herself going through the drive through because it was a quick option, and an easy way to use food to deal with her stress.

We made an agreement with that she could eat as much fast food as she would like, but with two specific stipulations.

The first was that she had to journal for a minimum of three minutes before grabbing any fast food and identify what emotions she was feeling using the HALTS (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Stressed) acronym that I got from Luka’s nutrition seminar.

By journaling, she was recognizing and confronting her real emotions and triggers instead of trying to suppress them with fast food.

The second agreement was if she ordered fast food she had to park her car and eat it in the parking lot. I made sure to explain this was in no way meant to create shame around her food choices.

But one of the reasons she got fast food frequently was because of how easy and quick it was. This made the fast food less quick and convenient.

Within two weeks of using these two agreements, she went from eating fast food as many as five times per week to less than once per week. I just got a text message from her today, and she mentioned that hasn’t had any fast food since March!

3.) Restaurants

Going out to eat frequently is a common excuse I hear from people who choose to deviate from their nutrition plan and make poor choices.

People use the “there’s no good options” line as a justification to be overly indulgent, but the “no good options” idea doesn’t justify picking the worst possible option on the menu.

There are options at every restaurant you can tweak to make fit your goals, but you have to advocate for yourself and ask for what you need.

If you’re going to make a special request at a restaurant, a great way to ensure it goes smoothly is to let the waiter know you’re more than happy to pay whatever its costs and appreciate them helping you out.

This way the waiter knows they’re going to be taken care of for going out of their way to help you, and will make the whole transaction at the restaurant goes smoother.

The Rule of 2

No one wants to go out to restaurants and only eat salads, and I completely understand. Sometimes you want to kick your heels up.

So how can you go out and enjoy yourself without entirely blowing your nutrition plan for the day? Enter the rule of 2.

This is another principle that I learned from Brian Wansink’s book Slim By Design, and have found to be very useful with my clients who go out to eat a lot.

When using the rule of 2, you order a reasonable entree and pick two additional items like a side salad and glass of wine or a piece of bread and dessert.

Using this rule of 2, you don’t feel deprived when you go out to eat, but makes you more selective about your choices.

Menu Psychology

When it comes to a well-engineered menu what most people don’t recognize is that it’s more than just words you read. There’s specific ways that menus catch your attention and can drive you to order a specific food.

What Catches Your Eye:

Anything that sticks out and draws your attention to it on a menu can influence what you order. With specials on a menu they may be written in a unique text or have a box drawn around the description to grab your attention.

How It Tastes To Your Brain:

A great menu uses descriptive language that makes you taste the food in your mind as you’re reading it. This helps to stimulate your imagination about the way the food will taste. An example of this would be a “freshly baked double dutch chocolate brownie.”

Geographic Names:

People like to assume that because a food comes from a specific region, it’s going to taste a specific way, or be better. This is why menu items that are attached to geographic names do well like “Fresh Oregon Coast King Salmon.

High Calorie Versus Low Calorie Words on a Menu

This might be the most valuable thing you take away from this whole restaurant section on changing your food environment.

If you can recognize these higher and lower calorie words on a menu, you can make more informed decisions to reach your goals and enjoy yourself when out to eat.

HIGH-CALORIE WORDS LOW-CALORIE WORDS
Buttery Seasoned
Creamed Roasted
Crispy/Crunchy Light
Smothered Fat Free
Alfredo or white sauce Reduced
Fried/deep fried/pan fried Marinated
Scampi Fresh
Loaded Broiled

4.) Grocery Store

Your best and worst dietary habits at home actually begin with the choices you make in the grocery store.

If you don’t bring junk foods in the house to begin with, it won’t be there to eat when you’re tempted.

The same principle applies if you don’t have high quality, nutritious foods in the house too, if you don’t have them you won’t eat them.

Many people head to the grocery store and mindlessly shop in the same way that they mindlessly eat.

If you’re distracted and not paying attention at the grocery store, you can walk out with bags of foods that don’t support making your home a leaner food environment.

However there’s steps you can before, and at the grocery store to ensure that your choices are geared towards reaching your goals.

Don’t Go Shopping Hungry

Have you ever gone grocery shopping hungry before and left the store with a bunch of ingredients and snacks, but no actual healthy meals? Ya, me either…

When you go grocery shopping hungry, you’re in the mindset of quickly fixing your hunger, and will have a preference for convenience foods.

Food cravings and hunger will make you imagine how tasty a food might be that’s right in front of you, and next thing you know a few sleeves of cookies jumps off the shelf into your basket without you knowing.

The first thing would be to have a protein based snack before going shopping, so you’re not as hungry, and less food focused.

Another easy pattern interrupt is chewing gum. It’s more difficult to imagine how a cookie tastes, and the texture it has when you’re already chewing gum, and have a specific texture and flavor you’re tasting.

Make a List

This is self explanatory but bears saying because people who don’t do this end up bewildered staring at the ice cream freezer.

Take 5-10 minutes every week and write down what you need from the store, and stick to the list.

Half Shopping Cart Rule

Brian Wansink has the idea to physically divide your cart in half by putting something across the middle like a scarf, coat or whatever you can use as a physical barrier.

Claim the front of your cart as the area you’re going to fill up with the more nutritious foods you want to buy more of like fruits and vegetables and lean protein.

Another idea is to be more selective with the aisles you go down and spend more time in, as it can influence your food choices.

This past week I had an interesting conversation with a client of mine about grocery store aisles and how to shop at the store.

She was explaining the difference between grocery stores in the US, and Dubai where she was raised.

She told me that all the grocery stores in Dubai had food separated by the region it’s from. The majority of the more calorie dense junk foods were in the American aisle at grocery stores in Dubai.

If she wanted to eat a little better she would avoid the American food aisle. However in the US grocery stores, it’s a little more difficult for her because we have the calorie dense hyper palatable foods in every aisle and shelf, making those foods more difficult to avoid.

Closing Thoughts

Your food environment can make you leaner and healthier or fatter and less healthy. The decision is yours to make, and take control of.

Like we spoke about in the lean mindset section of this article, the people who have the greatest long term success are the ones who pick a few habits and do them consistently.

Start by picking the food environment that creates the biggest barrier to your goals whether that be at home, restaurants or the grocery store.

Read back through the section that addresses that environment, and pick 2-3 changes to implement today. Keep working on those habits for 2-4 weeks and then pick a few more to execute on.

Before you know it, you’ll have engineered a leaner healthier lifestyle for yourself by changing your food environment and, putting leaner habits on autopilot.