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.
What happened? Over the next 3 months, the number of soda sales dropped by 11.4 percent. Meanwhile, bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent. Similar adjustments and results were made with food options. Nobody said a word to the visitors who ate at the cafeteria. The researchers simply changed the environment and people naturally followed suit.
Choice architecture is even more important when you’re already stressed, tired, or distracted. If you’re already worn-down, you’re probably not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or fit in a workout. You’ll grab or do whatever is easiest.
That means that if you take just a little bit of time today to organize your room, your office, your kitchen, and other areas, then that adjustment in choice architecture can guide you toward better choices even when your willpower is fading. Design for laziness.
How to Eat Healthy Without Noticing
Brian Wansink is a professor at Cornell University, and he has completed a variety of studies on how your environment shapes your eating decisions. Many of the ideas below come from his popular book, Mindless Eating (audiobook). Here are some of his best practical strategies for using choice architecture to make healthy eating easier.
1. Use smaller plates. Bigger plates mean bigger portions. And that means you eat more. According to a study conducted by Wansink and his research team, if you made a simple change and served your dinner on 10-inch plates instead of a 12-inch plate, you would eat 22% less food over the course of the next year.
On a related note, if you’re thinking “I’ll just put less food on my plate” … it’s not that simple. The picture below explains why. When you eat a small portion off of a large plate, your mind feels unsatisfied. Meanwhile, the same portion will feel more filling when eaten off of a small plate. The circles in the image below are the same size, but your brain (and stomach) doesn’t view them that way.
2. Want to drink less alcohol or soda? Use tall, slender glasses instead of short, fat ones.
Take a look at the image below. Is the horizontal or vertical line longer?
As it turns out, both lines are the same length, but our brain has a tendency to overestimate vertical lines. In other words, taller drinks look bigger to our eyes than round, horizontal mugs do. And because height makes things look bigger than width, you’ll actually drink less from taller glasses. In fact, you will typically drink about 20% less from a tall, slender glass than you would from a short, fat glass. (Hat tip to Darya Pino for originally sharing this image and idea.)
3. Use plates that have a high contrast color with your food. As I mentioned in this article, when the color of your plate matches the color of your food, you naturally serve yourself more because your brain has trouble distinguishing the portion size from the plate. Because of this, dark green and dark blue make great plate colors because they contrast with light foods like pasta and potatoes (which means you’re likely to serve less of them), but don’t contrast very much with leafy greens and vegetables (which means you’re likely to put more of them on your plate).
4. Display healthy foods in a prominent place. For example, you could place a bowl of fruits or nuts near the front door or somewhere else that you pass by before you leave the house. When you’re hungry and in a rush, you are more likely to grab the first thing you see.
5. Wrap unhealthy foods in tin foil. Wrap healthy foods in plastic wrap. The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” turns out to have some truth to it. Eating isn’t just a physical event, but also an emotional one. Your mind often determines what it wants to eat based on what your eyes see. Thus, if you hide unhealthy foods by wrapping them up or tucking them away in less prominent places, then you are less likely to eat them.
6. Keep healthy foods in larger packages and containers, and unhealthy foods in smaller ones. Big boxes and containers tend to catch your eye more, take up space in your kitchen and pantry, and otherwise get in your way. As a result, you’re more likely to notice them and eat them. Meanwhile, smaller items can hide in your kitchen for months. (Just take a look at what you have lying around right now. It’s probably small cans and containers.)
Bonus tip: if you buy a large box of something unhealthy, you can re-package it into smaller Ziploc bags or containers, which should make it less likely that you’ll binge and eat a lot at once.
What Should I Eat?
As I mentioned at the outset, this is not a guide about what to eat. It’s a guide about why we eat the way we do and how to do something about it. That said, I’ll offer two suggestions regarding what to put on your plate.
1. Eat more greens. There isn’t a consensus on the best diet, but pretty much everyone agrees on one thing: eat more veggies. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a single diet that doesn’t think eating more plants is a good idea.
2. Eat a variety of foods. As we covered earlier, the brain craves novelty. While you may not be able to replicate the crunchy/creamy contrast of an Oreo, you can vary your diet enough to keep things interesting. For example, you could dip a carrot (crunchy) in some hummus (creamy) and get a novel sensation. Similarly, finding ways to add new spices and flavors to your dishes can make eating healthy foods a more desirable experience.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be bland. Mix up your foods to get different sensations and you may find it easier than eating the same foods over and over again. (At some point, however, you may have to fall in love with boredom.)
Two Simple Ways to Eat Healthy
The main idea of most good diets is the same: eat whole foods that are unprocessed and that grew or lived outdoors. Some of them have different variations — no animal products, no grains, etc. — but most of them fit the general “real food” framework.
The problem is that — if you’re anything like me — you will eat whatever is close to you, whether it came from Mother Nature or not. As a result, the best strategy is to surround yourself with healthy food.
1. Use the “Outer Ring” Strategy. When I go to the grocery store, I only walk around the “outer ring” of the store. I don’t walk down the aisles. The outer ring is where the healthy food usually lives: fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, and nuts. These are items that grew or lived outdoors. That’s what I eat.
The aisles are where all of the boxed and processed stuff is placed. Don’t go down those aisles and you won’t buy those foods. Don’t buy those foods and they won’t be around for you to eat. Try this the next time you go to the store and do your best to not to make exceptions.
Sure, there will be the occasional time that you’ll need to go down an aisle to pick up spices or grab a bottle of olive oil, but this is rare. The last three times I’ve been at the grocery store, I have easily stayed on the “outer ring” and I bet you can do the same.
How to Eat Whatever You Want Without Feeling Guilty
2. Never Miss Twice. I think life is meant to be lived joyfully. I have no desire to judge myself for eating pizza or to feel guilty for drinking a beer. But, I also know that I feel much better when I eat healthy.
In order to balance the two, I have a simple rule that I try to follow: whenever I eat an unhealthy meal, I follow it with a healthy one.
Missing once is fine, but I never want to miss a healthy meal twice. Top performers make mistakes like everyone else, but they get back on track faster than most people. That’s what I try to do with my diet. I don’t worry about having fun and I try to enjoy life, but I also use this simple rule to guide me back toward a healthy diet as quickly as possible.