How and why your food environment can be the difference between dieting failure and success and what to do about it
It’s easy to think that dieting is a completely painless process sometimes. You know all about flexibility and food choices. You learned ages ago that you can eat what you want. As long as you maintain a calorie deficit, you will still lose weight. Your phone tells you how much you’ve eaten, and as long as you hit your target, your good. Your exercising right, trying to eat a diet that’s 80% whole foods, and keeping track of your scale weight. So why isn’t it working? Why do you keep falling off your diet and eating way over your calories? Why is it so hard?
You haven’t considered your food environment, and that one small mistake is costing you success.
Here’s why controlling and understanding your food environment is key, and what to do about it.
Is this you?
Let’s see if this scenario seems familiar:
- You’re tracking macros, and everything is going swimmingly.
- You have a couple of Krispy Kremes at work that put you over your target for the day.
- No problem though, you can borrow some calories from tomorrow. Flexible dieting for the win!
- You leave work and go straight to the gym.
- After the gym, you realise you’ve got no food at home so drive to the shop to get some on the way back.
- The shop doesn’t have anything that filling so you’ll have to make do with what they’ve got. You scan the food into MyfitnessPal to keep check of where you’re at.
- You drive home and eat the food while you’re in the car.
- Man, you feel pretty hungry now your home, and it’s only been 30 minutes since you ate. You’ve only got some protein bars and a tub of peanut butter.
- You eat the protein bars and have one little spoonful of peanut butter.
- You track the protein bar but ignore the peanut butter this time. It’s only a little spoonful.
- You go back to the peanut butter jar for 4 more spoonfuls of peanut butter throughout the evening.
- You don’t track it, but instead of borrowing from next day’s calories, you’ll reduce the next 4 days instead, so it’ll still be fine…
- Over the next week, you repeat the above process 3 more times.
- You tell yourself you’ll do more cardio.
What the hell happened? The answer is down to your environment, food choices, and behavioural reinforcement.
Why does your stupid brain stitch you up?
Your brain doesn’t always seem to be on your side. I mean, what is going on? Your brain should want you to be healthy and fit right? Why does it keep telling you to eat jelly babies instead of broccoli?
The answer is survival. Back in Palaeolithic times, starvation was a rather more pressing problem than it is now. Calories mattered. As with all things that matter to your survival, your brain worked it out, and the cavemen version of yourself knew what was up. If you couldn’t recognise the difference between the energy contained in celery or Paleo Pizza Hut, you wouldn’t last that long. Unlike your environment, your brain hasn’t changed that much since then.
The various systems in your body are all in cahoots with your brain. As soon as you eat a food packed with fat and sugar, your digestive system tells the brain that the food contains loads of energy and is thus awesome. Your sensory systems notice the appearance, smell, taste, texture, and even the foods location. They quietly whisper all this information to your brain, reinforcing the foods awesomeness, and the subsequent drive to find, and eat more of it.
The calories, fat, sugar, and other characteristics of the food matter. Those, together with learned preferences such as location and appearance result in what we now call food reward.
You’re at your desk, and there’s a plate of biscuits next to you all day. How likely are you to eat one? Now imagine that the same biscuits were two roads away in the furthest aisle in a shop for £5 a packet. How likely are you to eat them now? You’d already eaten lunch, if the Krispy Kremes weren’t handed around, would you have been hungry? Hungry enough to leave the office in search of something you would probably try to avoid at other times? The effort that goes into sourcing a food goes a long way towards how much of that food you’ll eat.
Food availability + food reward = diet failure.
Avoiding the trap
Now you know your much more likely to eat a food that’s within easy reach. You also know that the more palatable or likeable a food is, the more you’ll want it. Now you have this knowledge, what can you do about it?
Start at home
This is simple. Extreme to some perhaps, but simple none the less. Remove all potential “trigger” foods from your house. Go through cupboards, clear out the fridge. Even clear out the secret chocolate drawer. Come on, you’ll be fine.
The fact that those foods are no longer there, means you’re way less likely to go looking for them. You haven’t made your diet less flexible, you’ve made your diet easier to stick to. You can still eat what you want, but it’s now much more likely to be a planned, rational choice, rather than a knee-jerk decision.
Be vigilant at work
Work is a harder nut to crack. You can’t control what your company or colleagues do, and most offices are a food avoidance nightmare. The same as at home, removing trigger foods from your own area will go a long way to helping you stay on track. That means getting rid of the Haribo that live in your file drawer.
Other than that it’s about awareness. When someone offers you their homemade chocolate brownies one Friday, you know now what it can lead to. That in itself might be enough to avoid any potential negatives. Or you could say no. Refusing Jenny from accounts’ blueberry muffin might make her hate you a little bit, but she’ll get over it. The choice, as always, is your and yours alone.
If you’ve already bought into flexible dieting and a lifestyle that allows liberal food choices without guilt or consequence, you’re already winning. But if you find you’re not staying on track as well as you’d like, consider an audit of your food environment. Your brain might not thank you, but it could be the missing link between diet success or relative failure.
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