The fitness industry has a dirty secret (well, several, but this is one of them): for all of the time that we spend talking about the best exercises, the best diets to follow, and the best ways to plan your workout progressions and macrocycles, we’re not really addressing most people’s fundamental problem.
Whether we say it or not, most people don’t need a better meal plan nearly as much as they need to be better at sticking to the meal plan and fitness program that they already have.
Fortunately, tens of thousands of research papers have been published about how to get people to stick to their commitments. The advice in this article is program-agnostic: it will help you stick to whatever nutritional lifestyle that you choose to follow.
How Do You Stick to Eating Healthy?
1. Self-Control: Not Starting Is Better Than Stopping
A common platitude states that willpower is like a muscle: it gets stronger when you use it. Leaving aside the fact that this isn’t quite how muscles work — they get stronger when recovering from exercise — the evidence for the trainability of self-control is mixed.
Studies have found mixed results on whether self-control can actually be trained. However, there are two types of self-control tasks used in research: stop-signal tasks require a subject to stop doing something pleasurable after they start, while go/no-go tasks require subjects to refrain from starting in the first place.
A meta-analysis of self-control studies found that significant training improvements were found for go/no-go tasks, but not for stop-signal tasks. In other words, not starting is not only easier than stopping, but also more learnable.
2. Avoid Temptation, Don’t Resist It
This leads us to another question: are people with high self-control really better at avoiding temptation, or do they feel less temptation in the first place?
A series of three studies in Germany found that individuals who scored high in (personality) trait self-control actually performed worse at tasks that tested their willpower via several different methods. The researchers conclude that people with high trait self-control engage in less frequent impulse inhibition in their daily routines. In other words, they’re not better at resisting temptation, but they do experience temptation less often.
Of course, some people may be naturally less prone to temptation, but you can always find ways to avoid it, such as not visiting fast food restaurants to avoid unhealthy choices.
3. View Willpower as Unlimited
A common theory known as ego depletion states that willpower is a limited resource; once it runs out, you need rest — or possibly sugar — to replenish it.
More recent studies have refuted this however. In one study, merely tasting sugar without swallowing it restored subjects’ willpower. In another study, subjects who viewed willpower as unlimited had stronger willpower than those who viewed it as limited.
It appears that willpower is all in your head.
4. Follow the Crowding Out Principle
Eating healthy is usually seen as revolving primarily around cutting out “bad” foods. However, adding in healthy food is at least as important — and it’s also easier and more satisfying.
By making an effort to eat more healthy, low-calorie food, you’ll keep yourself full and satisfied, reducing your desire to eat unhealthy foods. In fact, doing this consistently may allow you to eliminate most of your junk food consumption without having to completely ban junk food from your diet, which also means that you won’t feel as deprived.
5. Buy Groceries When You’re Full
People have a hard time, on a gut level (pun intended), distinguishing between what they want right now and what they’ll want in the future. Accordingly, your choices at the grocery store will depend on how hungry you are at the time, even though the groceries you buy won’t be consumed until days later.
Studies confirm that hungry grocery shoppers buy more calories. Not more food, mind you — just more calorically-dense food.
In line with this finding, you should avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry. But you can even do one better: Always buy your groceries immediately after a meal — perhaps even a slightly large meal — when you feel full. That will push you towards buying healthier, less calorically-dense foods.
6. Minimize Stress
It’s well-known that high levels of psychological stress lead to impaired decision-making. In fact, stress can also cause excess abdominal fat storage via elevated cortisol levels. So what does the literature say about stress management as an approach to fat loss?
Two recent studies demonstrated the effectiveness of stress management training in obese Greek and African American women. The Greek study noted higher restrained eating compared to a control group, while the American study found that stress management training produced a decrease in salivary cortisol levels. The subjects in the American study were taught behavioral weight management techniques simultaneous with the stress management training. The Greek subjects were not, but since they were recruited from an outpatient weight loss clinic, one can reasonably assume that they most likely were receiving weight loss advice from their doctors at the time of the study.
A systematic review of 14 studies in which mindfulness meditation was used as the primary intervention for weight loss found that mindfulness meditation was effective at decreasing emotional eating and binge eating in people who are prone to those issues. It found mixed evidence for effects on weight in people without emotional eating or binge eating problems.
Of course, you know whether emotional eating is an issue for you, or whether you tend to alternate between restrained eating and binging. Mindfulness training is helpful for everyone, but for people with emotional/stress eating problems, it’s crucial.