Darya discusses how psychology impacts our ability to create healthy eating habits.
I started my first diet when I was eleven years old, sixth grade. I wasn’t overweight or anything close to it, but I came into the kitchen before school one morning, and my mom was making herself a chocolate milkshake for breakfast.
If you can remember being eleven, you can imagine how awesome that sounded. When she told me it was a diet shake that was supposed to help her lose weight, I thought that was even better. Even though I was just a child, I had internalized enough of the early ’90s supermodel culture to know that being thin was a good thing.
My mom agreed to share her SlimFast with me, and 15 years later, I was still struggling every day to be happy with food and with myself. During that time, I tried every diet that crossed my path. In high school, I wouldn’t touch a food if it had a single gram of fat.
In college, carbs were the forbidden fruit – literally. I’ve eaten more cabbage soup, grapefruit halves and boneless, skinless chicken breasts than any human ever should. And I have to say, all these diets worked.
I mean, I lost that same 10 pounds at least 20 times. (Laughter) So I know how seductive diets are. I know how good it feels to work hard at something and have everyone tell you how great you look. But I also know the heartbreak that comes from trying to relax just a little and having your cheat day turn into a cheat week and then a cheat month, leaving you worse off than where you started, only with an extra layer of shame and misery that come with failure.
Restrictive diets can work amazingly well, but only for a short period of time. In the long run, which it turns out is what most of us actually care about, diets make losing weight and getting healthy harder – not easier.
Diets create bad habits, they instill a scarcity mindset around food that often leads to bingeing, and they can even permanently alter your metabolism for the worse. They’re not awesome. So what should you do instead? They’re rare, but there are people who manage to lose weight and keep it off indefinitely without dieting.
Members of the National Weight Control Registry have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year, but on average, they’ve lost 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years. What’s their secret? They’ve each adopted a personalized pattern of healthy habits that works for them.
The cliché thing to say is that they’ve built a healthy lifestyle. And in fact, this is the only method that seems to consistently help people lose weight and stay healthy. The problem, the reason most people aren’t able to do this is that making this elusive lifestyle change is actually really hard.
But it isn’t impossible, and I believe more people could do it if they knew how to best use their time and energy. Today, I’m going to give you three ways to do this. First, the new habits you want to create need to be intrinsically enjoyable, not simply doable or tolerable.
One of the biggest mistakes we make when trying to build healthy habits is choosing activities we don’t actually like, like pushing our workouts way beyond our fitness level or eating flavorless foods because they’re supposed to be healthy.
This approach works in direct opposition to how your brain forms habits and is never sustainable. For a habit to form, you need a cue or reminder: something that you can see or hear or feel, like the smell of fresh brewing coffee.
This creates a desire in you to take a certain action, like getting a cup of coffee. And you do this action because you anticipate some kind of reward or satisfaction, like that warm tasty beverage and that little hit of energy that comes with it.
Without that feeling of satisfaction, the cue is never reinforced and the behavior never becomes automatic. And if it isn’t automatic, it isn’t a real habit. So what does it mean that it needs to be intrinsically enjoyable? This means that the thing you enjoy, the reward, needs to be a property of the activity itself.
So you shouldn’t start rewarding yourself for going for a run by watching an extra hour of TV before bed. It’s not going to cut it. In fact, these extrinsic rewards, rewards that are not directly linked to the activity, have been shown to undermine motivation in the long run by turning something that you might have actually enjoyed into a chore that you can now talk yourself out of.
So you need to like the activity itself. That is your reward. In my own case, this meant falling in love with the farmers market. I had no idea that simple foods like carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes could taste so much better than the ones I’d been buying my entire life at the grocery store.
I have even started to love foods I used to hate, like beets and Brussels sprouts. All of a sudden, I was excited to learn to cook. Something I’d had zero interest in for my entire life. Almost overnight, healthy eating became my joy, my defaults and a lifelong new identity.
This is what an intrinsically enjoyable habit looks and feels like. Okay, so what if you don’t like to run? Don’t. Choose a different activity that you do enjoy to get yourself moving. What if all activity feels a little daunting because you’re out of shape? Start smaller.
Choose something less strenuous that is enjoyable, like an evening stroll around the block. Don’t worry about how many calories it burns. Worry about starting a habit that you like. The second part of your new strategy is cultivating awareness around your thoughts, actions and emotions.
The buzzword for this is mindfulness. The reason mindfulness is so important is that your current habits occur virtually automatically. Remember this is a defining characteristic of habits. You go through your day on autopilot, and before you know it, you’re in front of your computer munching on some chips you grabbed in the break room.
Mindfulness is a skill that allows you to become aware of your current mental state. It creates the pause necessary for you to reflect on your values before acting, giving you the mental flexibility you need to choose something new.
Think about how you feel when you get home from work. You’re probably tired and hungry, maybe not in the best mood after fighting traffic. This morning, you planned on cooking a healthy meal when you got home, but now there’s a good chance that you don’t feel like it.
This combination of fatigue, hunger and frustration is triggering you to want calorie-rich food that does not take a lot of effort. So that easy pizza in the freezer is pulling you much more strongly than the low-calorie fish and veggies in the fridge that require prep and cooking.
Being aware of these individual feelings, rather than simply reacting to them or trying to resist them, is a powerful skill because once you do it, you can then ask yourself if those feelings are worth acting on or if it’s worth it to do the healthier thing anyway, even if it’s a little harder today.
And here’s the thing: even if in this instance you decide that you really are too tired to cook, a pizza really is the best option, that awareness can help you recognize that there’s actually something you can do to prevent this situation in the future.
For instance, you could grab a handful of nuts before leaving the office to avoid compounding your fatigue with hunger. Or maybe the dinner you chose to cook was too ambitious or not exciting enough, and you need to choose a different meal to jump start your new cooking habit.
New habits will almost always feel like more work the first few times you do them. But if they’re intrinsically rewarding, eventually it will start to feel like the easiest option. Mindfulness is what will help you get there.
This is why I recommend developing a regular mindful practice to develop this skill. Even if it is just a simple breathing exercise. Practicing mindfulness when it’s easy, when you are not triggered, makes it much more likely you’ll succeed in the more difficult situations you’ll face in your life.
The third part of your new strategy might be the most important. It is developing a growth mindset. “Growth mindset” is a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the belief that you can overcome obstacles of perseverance and develop your skills with effort.
A growth mindset stands in contrast to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that your talents and traits are set at birth and you can’t really change much with effort. In my experience, health is one of the most difficult areas of life to develop a growth mindset.
Because when diet after diet leaves you heavier and less healthy, it’s easy to start believing that the problem is you. You start to develop a personal narrative about how you are just not a fitness person or you just love comfort food too much.
When you start to believe stories like this about yourself, it becomes very difficult to make meaningful change. This is the trap of the fixed mindset. Fortunately, a growth mindset is something you can develop.
It involves understanding that all humans are capable of learning and developing their skills. And you are no exception. You can learn to cook. You can learn to like food you hated as a kid. You can become an active person even if you hate the gym.
And you can prioritize your own self-care even if you work long hours or have a family – or both. Developing a growth mindset also requires understanding that missteps are part of the learning process.
Not only do setbacks not define you, they are opportunities to grow and learn more about how you and the world work – both individually and together. If a baby falls down when learning to walk, is he a failure? Of course not.
Rather than focusing on how things didn’t work out for you or what’s impossible to change, someone with a growth mindset always remains focused on what is workable. They keep their attention on their actions and the things they can control to get a different outcome next time.
To cultivate this mindset in yourself, I love Russ Harris’s suggestion to ask yourself three questions: What worked? What didn’t work? And what can I do differently next time? These three questions are a simple framework you can use to get your mind away from unhelpful thoughts of failure and toward positive action, shifting your mindset from fixed to growth.
Changing things like beliefs and habits is not easy. Developing a mindful practice takes effort. And working to discover healthy habits you actually enjoy takes a lot of self-reflection and a willingness to try things even without complete confidence that they’re going to work.
But it’s possible to make progress in all these areas – if you focus your energy in the right places. I spent 15 years forcing myself to eat foods that left me unsatisfied and do workouts that made me miserable.
And all I had to show for it was extra body weight and a deep frustration with myself and how I looked. It only took a couple of months to start seeing results once I changed my strategy. After several years, not only had my effort not backfired as usual, but I had met and even exceeded my fitness goals.
But by then, that felt less important than the fact that I was actually happy. The daily struggle I’d lived with for almost my entire life had ended. My lifestyle had definitely changed. I was eating way more vegetables, rarely bothered with processed foods, was cooking regularly and was active daily.
But I adored all these things. They brought me joy and fulfillment. My healthy habits were now an expression of self-love rather than self-hatred. I’ve now been happy and healthy for as long as I spent dieting – nearly 15 years.
In some ways, the change has felt momentous. But in other ways, it’s felt like the easiest and most natural thing in the world, like this was always the way it was meant to be. Because this is how it feels to work with your mind, instead of against it.