Healthy eating. It’s something everyone knows they should do, but few of us do as consistently as we would like. The purpose of this guide is to share practical strategies for how to eat healthy and break down the science of why we often fail to do so.
Now, I don’t claim to have a perfect diet, but my research and writing on behavioral psychology and habit formation has helped me develop a few simple strategies for building and strengthening a healthy eating habit without much effort or thought.
You can click the links below to jump to a particular section or simply scroll down to read everything. At the end of this page, you’ll find a complete list of all the articles I have written on healthy eating.
I. The Science of Healthy Eating
Every nutritionist and diet guru talks about what to eat. Instead, I’d like to discuss whywe eat the way we do and how we can change that. The purpose of this guide is to share the science and strategy you need to get the results you want.
Now, the benefits of good nutrition are fairly obvious to most of us. You have more energy, your health improves, and your productivity blossoms. Healthy eating also plays a huge role in maintaining a healthy weight, which means a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart problems, high blood pressure, and a host of other health ailments. (Genetics also plays a significant role. I’m not some crazy person who thinks genes don’t matter.)
But if there are so many good reasons for healthy eating, why is it so difficult to actually do? To answer that question, we should start by learning why we crave junk food.
Before we talk about how to get started, let’s pause for just a second. If you’re enjoying this article on healthy eating, then you’ll probably find my other writing on performance and human behavior useful. Each week, I share self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research through my free email newsletter.
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Why We Crave Junk Food
Steven Witherly is a food scientist who has spent the last 20 years studying what makes certain foods more addictive than others. Much of the science that follows is from his excellent report, Why Humans Like Junk Food.
According to Witherly, when you eat tasty food, there are two factors that make the experience pleasurable.
First, there is the sensation of eating the food. This includes what it tastes like (salty, sweet, umami, etc.), what it smells like, and how it feels in your mouth. This last quality — known as “orosensation” — can be particularly important. Food companies will spend millions of dollars to discover the most satisfying level of crunch in a potato chip. Food scientists will test for the perfect amount of fizzle in a soda. These elements all combine to create the sensation that your brain associates with a particular food or drink.
The second factor is the actual macronutrient makeup of the food — the blend of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that it contains. In the case of junk food, food manufacturers are looking for a perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that excites your brain and gets you coming back for more.
Here’s how they do it…
How Food Scientists Create Cravings
There is a range of factors that scientists and food manufacturers use to make food more addictive.
Dynamic contrast. Dynamic contrast refers to a combination of different sensations in the same food. In the words of Witherly, foods with dynamic contrast have “an edible shell that goes crunch followed by something soft or creamy and full of taste-active compounds. This rule applies to a variety of our favorite food structures — the caramelized top of a creme brulee, a slice of pizza, or an Oreo cookie — the brain finds crunching through something like this very novel and thrilling.”
Salivary response. Salivation is part of the experience of eating food, and the more a food causes you to salivate, the more it will swim throughout your mouth and cover your taste buds. For example, emulsified foods like butter, chocolate, salad dressing, ice cream, and mayonnaise promote a salivary response that helps to lather your taste buds with goodness. This is one reason why many people enjoy foods that have sauces or glazes on them. The result is that foods that promote salivation do a happy little tap dance on your brain and taste better than ones that don’t.
Rapid food meltdown and vanishing caloric density. Foods that rapidly vanish or “melt in your mouth” signal to your brain that you’re not eating as much as you actually are. In other words, these foods literally tell your brain that you’re not full, even though you’re eating a lot of calories.
In his best-selling book, Salt Sugar Fat (audiobook), author Michael Moss describes a conversation with Witherly that explains vanishing caloric density perfectly…
He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.”
“I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it … you can just keep eating it forever.”
Sensory-specific response. Your brain likes variety. When it comes to food, if you experience the same taste over and over again, then you start to get less pleasure from it. In other words, the sensitivity of that specific sensor will decrease over time. This can happen in just minutes.
Junk foods, however, are designed to avoid this sensory specific response. They provide enough taste to be interesting (your brain doesn’t get tired of eating them), but it’s not so stimulating that your sensory response is dulled. This is why you can swallow an entire bag of potato chips and still be ready to eat another. To your brain, the crunch and sensation of eating Doritos is novel and interesting every time.
Calorie density. Junk foods are designed to convince your brain that it is getting nutrition, but to not fill you up. Receptors in your mouth and stomach tell your brain about the mixture of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in a particular food, and how filling that food is for your body. Junk food provides just enough calories that your brain says, “Yes, this will give you some energy” but not so many calories that you think “That’s enough, I’m full.” The result is that you crave the food to begin with, but it takes quite some time to feel full from it.
Memories of past eating experiences. This is where the psychobiology of junk food really works against you. When you eat something tasty (say, a bag of potato chips), your brain registers that feeling. The next time you see that food, smell that food, or even read about that food, your brain starts to trigger the memories and responses that came when you ate it. These memories can actually cause physical responses like salivation and create the “mouth-watering” craving that you get when thinking about your favorite foods.
These factors all combine to make processed food tasty and desirable to our human brains. When you combine the science behind these foods with the incredible prevalence of food (cheap fast food everywhere), eating healthy becomes very hard to do.
II. How to Make Healthy Eating Easier
Most people think that building better habits or changing your actions is all about willpower or motivation. But the more I learn, the more I believe that the number one driver of behavior change is your environment.
Your environment has an incredible ability to shape your behavior. Nowhere is this more true than with food. What we eat on a daily basis is often a result of what we are presented.
Let me share an interesting experiment to show you exactly what I mean…
The Importance of Environment for Healthy Eating
Anne Thorndike is a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Thorndike and her colleagues conducted a six-month study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health.
This study secretly took place in the hospital cafeteria and helped thousands of people develop healthy eating habits without changing their willpower or motivation in the slightest way. Thorndike and her team utilized a concept known as “choice architecture.” Choice architecture is just a fancy word for changing the way the food and drinks are displayed, but, as it turns out, it makes a big difference.
The researchers started by changing the choice architecture of the drinks in the cafeteria. Originally, there were three main refrigerators, all of which were filled with soda. The researchers made sure that water was added to each of those units and also placed baskets of bottled water throughout the room.
The image below depicts what the room looked like before the changes (Figure A) and after the changes (Figure B). The dark boxes indicate areas where bottled water is available.