Why is it hard for so many people? The answer lies within your psychology, habits, and convenience. All three of them work together in tandem to determine how you eat and how difficult it is for someone to form healthy eating habits.
Let’s start by assuming that most of you know what to eat when it comes to healthy foods. We all realize the importance of:
If you don’t, I strongly suggest hiring a nutritionist to help you navigate how to eat as this blog isn’t about what you need to eat, how much you should eat, or even why eating healthy is so important for you.
The basics of eating are not difficult, but the practice of it is where even the best intentions go awry.
The workweek offers structure and consistency, which makes it easier to adhere to a nutrition and training rhythm – in theory. Barring hiccups like working long hours, a tiring commute, or family obligations, the structure of a work week is set up:
The habit formation you should work towards includes such things as going to bed at a reasonable time, eliminating electronic usage 60m before that bedtime, setting an alarm to wake up with plenty of time to eat, get your food together for the day, and arrive to work on time. This isn’t even throwing the gym into the mix, as eating healthy doesn’t require you to attend a gym. Exercise is an incredible habit to form, and I highly recommend it to everyone regardless of fitness level, but eating healthy is the main course here.
Forming these habits may take you some time, as the conditioning of unhealthy habits is a comfort for many of us. The habits that take away from your health and quality of life need to be minimized if you are to pursue a healthier avenue.
Whereas food is not an addictive substance, by no means does that truth minimize the addictive feeling of convenience food. It just feels and tastes damn good to eat from Burger King instead of preparing a dinner at home. Not to mention the time and effort saved in doing so.
Our society is extremely instant-gratification, and it will only get worse as time goes on. Amazon even offers same day delivery in many locations, so you can click, order, and have your shipment at your house in a few hours. Contrast that to the late 1980s and early 1990s when ordering from a catalogue took weeks to arrive. That type of conditioning is universal, as we expect instant results, immediate gratification, and comfort.
Healthy habits are none of the above. They will not offer you comfort at first because you are forgoing the ease of your routine in creating a new one. Those same habits will not give you immediate satisfaction because eating chicken, rice, vegetables is nowhere near as satisfying to the palate as the pizza from the neighborhood Pizzeria. Results? Those take a long time, as you didn’t end up where you are now in one week; therefore, it will take the same time to get where you want to be physically and mentally.
Complicate your habit building with the fact that weekends are a free-for-all for many people where the 2 day relief from work, waking up early, and routine offer a slight chance at a reprieve from the grind.
The above chart is a representation of what can happen to someone on a weekend when they allow the habits to take a backseat to comfort. You can undo a week’s worth of work in two days, and it will take several days to get back on track from the bloat, water weight, and a break in the mental transcription of habits you may not be equipped for yet.
This all underscores the need to set yourself up with the habits required to tackle a healthy lifestyle.
How many times have you fallen short of a health and fitness goal only to browbeat yourself over it? I don’t mean demanding better of yourself and doing the work needed to ensure success, but I mean the feeling of impending doom and sheer failure that permeates you to your core?
Many of us have this tendency to be harder on ourselves than is necessary. Let’s put it into a little perspective.
If you have three meals with one snack per day, that will be 28 meals per week. If three meals are absolute train wrecks where you don’t track calories, overeat, and choose meals that are about as nutritionally diverse as a pepperoni pizza, you are still eating well for 90% of your meals. 90% is a damn good rate when you see it laid out in front of you, but people focus on what they did wrong rather than correct.
That is western culture in a nutshell. Place blame, punish, and hope it never happens again. What good does it do to punish yourself for an “off” meal? Does it help you? Do you need to browbeat yourself when you already feel bad about it? Does even feeling bad about not eating on plan matter?
Working on reframing your mindset after a self-perceived error is key. Some of us can do that easier than others, but it is almost universally accepted that an element of self-kindness is critical to nutritional success.
A 2021 study looked at 100 mothers and concluded:
“In sum, the present study highlighted the significant associations of self-compassion with women’s diet quality and eating behaviours and showed that these links occur, in part, due to improved body esteem. The present sample included the mothers of young children and of adolescents, which is important considering the paramount role they play in their children’s developing body image and eating behaviours. Future research is necessary, however, in order to build upon the present findings as well as to study the generalizability of the results in different samples (e.g., in males or in clinical samples) and to determine if self-compassion or body esteem can be enhanced through interventions in the hope of improving diet quality, increasing intuitive eating, and lessening emotional eating.”
Source: Carbonneau, N., Holding, A., Lavigne, G., & Robitaille, J. (2021). Feel Good, Eat Better: The Role of Self-Compassion and Body Esteem in Mothers’ Healthy Eating Behaviours. Nutrients, 13(11), 3907. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13113907
As research grows into nutritional psychology we are finding more and more evidence linking behavioral health, self-kindness methods, and proper intervention.
“Starting the work focused on motivation and awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle on both physical and psychological health from the ﬁrst contact between the patients and the health professionals could improve the long-term results.”
Source: Flore, G.; Preti, A.; Carta, M.G.; Deledda, A.; Fosci, M.; Nardi, A.E.; Loviselli, A.; Velluzzi, F. Weight Maintenance after Dietary Weight Loss: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis on the Effectiveness of Behavioural Intensive Intervention. Nutrients 2022, 14, 1259. https:// doi.org/10.3390/nu14061259
The psychology of nutritional success is complex with each person having their intrinsic motivation, adherence issues, and stressors which influence the likelihood of success. It complicates the matter away from “eat healthy and count calories”.
Food isn’t the enemy. Dead animals, boxed food, bagged up vegetables, packs of peanut butter cups, and bowls of chips aren’t talking to you and pulling your teeth out so you eat them. The enemy is our perception of food and the factors that influence the consumption of it.
Fixing that perception isn’t a simple issue for many people and, unfortunately, many nutrition coaches aren’t up to the task because they aren’t equipped to handle psychological barriers they cannot directly relate to.
This doesn’t mean you are lost without a compass, it means you can’t just brush off food as a simple black-and-white issue.
Perception and psychology impact our entire lives. Food is no exception. If you are struggling with food, you owe it to yourself to seek help from someone who can lead you correctly, not someone who throw numbers at you without lessons on how to battle cravings, how to move on from a bad day of eating, and how to practice self-kindness.
It doesn’t matter what your goals are with food, the relationship you have with it will determine your long-term success. That relationship is complicated by your life. It doesn’t magically disappear just because you want it to.
It doesn’t need to be complicated, and you can learn how to do it if you are willing to be a little uncomfortable with change.
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