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Health and wellness

Dieting won’t stop your bad eating habits long-term – but changing your environment might

  • Diets work until they don’t. Making environmental changes could help
  • Try moving junk food out of your eye line and out of your house
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 8:03pm

So many of us want to be thinner. How can we get there?

Our collective inability to lose weight suggests that we won’t find much evidence on strategies that work. We’ll find, instead, that study after study after study concludes that all diets are equally effective – which is to say, ineffective.

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Not that we need peer review to tell us that. Just about every obesity expert points to a food environment loaded with convenient, calorie-dense, diabolically delicious food as the culprit (or at least one of the culprits). Yet a prescription for what to eat doesn’t really help when you come face-to-face with the temptation of what you’re not supposed to eat every time you turn around.

And guess what? There’s a body of research about that, too. People actually study whether humans eat more when there’s food around. And you’ll be shocked – shocked – to find out that they do. “The eating behaviour of those with higher relative weights is susceptible to the presence of palatable foods in the environment,” concludes one.

One of my favourite demonstrations of the power of simple proximity was done back in 2006, and it involved 40 office secretaries, each with a candy jar. When the jar was transparent, and within arm’s reach, the secretaries ate an average of just under eight candies a day. When the jar was opaque and six feet away, consumption dropped to about three. That’s a 60 per cent reduction, just by moving/changing the jar.

Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat because we’re tempted. Yet we continue to try to lose weight by manipulating our diet rather than our environment.

Anybody who pays a modicum of attention to food already knows, more or less, what we’re supposed to eat: more whole foods with their nutrients intact and a lot less junk. And diet after diet after diet gives us a different combinations of those whole foods, as though this combination is going to do the trick. The problem isn’t the knowing; the problem is the doing. When there’s a plate of cheese Danishes at the morning meeting, knowing you’re not supposed to eat them doesn’t really help.

At a societal level, we have to take control of the food environment that got us into this mess. But if you don’t want to wait for government, industry and societal norms to change, you can take control of your own personal food environment.

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To outwit the Danish, don’t sign on for yet another diet that tells you not to eat it. Sign on, instead, for a strategy that keeps you from crossing paths with the Danish.

Like charity, environmental manipulation begins at home. After two decades of writing about nutrition, and fighting my own weight for my entire life, the single best suggestion I have is to clear your house of every single food that calls to you – every one. If I had to wage a daily battle against a house full of ice cream, crisps and baked goods, I would undoubtedly lose. So those things just don’t cross my threshold (except for the occasional festivity). I know I’m no match for 24/7 temptation. But, while I can’t silence the call of ice cream all day and all night, I can silence it for the seven seconds it takes me to walk past the frozen dessert section at the grocery store.

This will give you a clue that one of the reasons I’m enthusiastic about the change-your-environment strategy is that it works for me. In a way, that makes me no different from that guy who cornered you at a party to tell you how keto is different from every other diet, and really it’s the only way to lose weight.

But think about the last time you tried a diet. Chances are, you lost weight and then you didn’t. And then you might have regained. What changed? If you gradually got lured back in to the status quo of ubiquitous cheese Danishes and ice cream, maybe it’s time to give the environmental strategy a shot.

Not that it’s always so easy. Many of us share a home with other people. People who are, perhaps, not as susceptible to the call of fridge, and don’t need the house to be stripped of snacks before they can eat reasonably well. My husband, Kevin, is one such person, and I am fortunate in that he is on board with my food strategy, and never complains about the fact that there’s nothing but ingredients in our house. Come snacktime, you just can’t do much damage with an onion, a cauliflower and some frozen prawns.

Still, we do sometimes find ourselves with a rogue box of biscuits, and I am not above asking Kevin to hide them someplace and dole them out two at a time, after dinner. Some creative solutions and family compromises may be required to make your home a no-temptation zone, but it’s worth doing because it’s the part of your food environment you have the most control over.

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Other areas are trickier. Work, for example. You can’t wave your magic wand and get the Danishes out of the meetings, the biscuits out of the break room, the Snickers out of the vending machines. But you might find a few other folks who would like to see that happen. Many employers are actively looking for ways to encourage on-the-job wellness, and there might be some room to manoeuvrer. You can make a suggestion. If more people make the same suggestion, at-work food policies might begin to change.

Next, recognise the power of habit. We often overeat at the same time of day or in the same circumstances. And, because external cues can make us start thinking about food – us and Pavlov’s dogs – changing the cues can help change the behaviour.

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, is an excellent explanation of this tendency, and he’s got a good synopsis of the basics online, but the essence is straightforward. Break up any routine that culminates in eating stuff you’re trying to avoid. Don’t walk through the kitchen. Don’t drive by the bakery. If you reach for a snack when you get home from work, have a plan to do something else that appeals to you, even if it’s just a round of a video game or an episode of the show you’re binge-watching. If it involves physical activity, even better. I know my food day goes better when I don’t eat first thing in the morning, and that’s what the crossword puzzle is for.

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Still, you can’t live in a cave, and no amount of careful planning will keep you out of temptation’s way. When that happens, take a cue from the children that succeeded in that famous delayed-gratification experiment. You know the one: children were left in a room with one marshmallow and told they could have two if they waited 15 minutes without eating the first one. The children that managed to wait ended up coping better with school, stress and food in later life. What did those children do to wait out the 15 minutes? They distracted themselves. They invented games or they sang songs. The did something to stop thinking about how much they wanted to eat the marshmallow. If you can’t go with physical separation, mental separation is the next best thing.

This is just the tip of the environmental-manipulation iceberg, but you get the point. Weight loss isn’t about a magic combination of food. There’s just no magic to be had. And when you read about how weight is about carbohydrate metabolism, or your microbiome, or insulin resistance, it’s hard to believe that the answer is as simple as getting the food out of the room. But four decades of getting crazy delicious food in the room – in every room – got us here. So diet like it’s 1979.