How to design an environment that helps you eat healthier

Juliet Hodges
Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK
28 August 2018

We tend to think that what choose to eat – whether healthy or otherwise – is largely due to our willpower (or lack of it!). But did you know that your environment can have a huge impact on what and how much you eat?

A lot of our decisions are made automatically, without us being consciously aware of them. This is particularly true of eating, as we need it to survive, so having shortcuts in the brain would have been very useful for our early ancestors. However, now that food is plentiful for the majority of people, these shortcuts can work against us. This means we have to focus on restraining ourselves, which can be really difficult.

The good news is that, just by changing your environment, you can have a big impact on what you eat. In fact, studies show that people with the most willpower don’t actually use it all that much – they’ve just designed their lives to keep themselves away from temptation. Here are some tips to make your environment work for you at home, at work and when you’re eating out.

At home

Buy groceries online

We often make better decisions when we’re planning in advance, as we’re less influenced by hunger and other factors that make us pick unhealthy foods. Evidence suggests that people who buy their groceries ahead online tend to buy healthier things. Another added benefit of buying your groceries all in one go is you’re less likely to make impulse purchases than when you do smaller shopping trips. So it’s convenient and good for you!

Control your portion sizes

We all know that big portions make us eat more, but even if you don’t eat everything on your plate it can still be a problem. Research shows that having lots of leftovers after a big meal makes us feel like we’ve eaten less than when the plate is nearly empty, even when the amount eaten is exactly the same. This is bad news, because if we don’t think we’ve eaten that much, we’re less likely to be restrained later, or to try to work off some of those calories with exercise. Try serving yourself smaller portions and going back for more if you’re still hungry, rather than leaving lots on your plate.

Remove distractions

We’ve all occasionally had dinner while sitting in front of TV, possibly reading something or scrolling through our phones at the same time. When we do this we don’t really pay attention to what we’re putting in our mouths. But studies show that being distracted while we eat can not only increase how much we eat at that meal, but also later on. Turn off your devices and just focus on your food.

At work

Hide food cues

Offices can be a nightmare for our eating habits, with every kind of temptation, from birthday cakes to leftover sandwiches after a meeting. This makes sticking to a diet really difficult. Studies suggest that high-calorie foods are more likely to attract our attention – and once they have our attention, we’re more likely to eat them. If you can, put these snacks in a cupboard where they’re still available but out of sight – or sit somewhere else if you have to.

Have healthy snacks on hand

As you might expect, hunger itself has a big impact on the food choices we make. Being hungry can actually make us more impulsive, and more responsive to food cues that we see. This means that if you’re ravenous by the time you go to lunch, you’re more likely to choose something you shouldn’t. Try having small, healthy snacks throughout the day to avoid this.

Change your route

None of us like to think we’re influenced by advertising, but of course we are. This is especially true if we’re working on something challenging. One study found that people who were given a difficult task to complete, and then exposed to food advertising, ate almost 50% more unhealthy snacks afterwards than people given a simple task. On your way to work or on your lunch break, if you regularly walk past billboards or shop windows with unhealthy food displayed, it might be affecting what you eat. Find an alternative route to avoid these influences, particularly when there’s a lot on your mind.

Eating out

Watch out for ‘healthy’ options

With growing awareness of the need to tackle obesity, lots of restaurants have started offering healthy options instead. While this seems like a positive change, it can sometimes make our food choices worse. We can underestimate how many calories are in those dishes, and even across the menu as a whole. One study found that adding salad to a fast food menu made people three times more likely to order the most calorific item. Look out for this and think carefully before you order.

Don’t order more

Even when menu items are as healthy as they appear, this can have negative consequences on our behaviour. Studies have found that when there’s calorie information on a menu, or healthy items are labelled, people who choose the healthy option are more likely to order dessert as well. So if you do manage to choose a virtuous main, don’t spoil it with pudding!

Make a plan

We’ve already seen that planning in advance can help you buy healthier groceries, but you can also try this when you’re eating out too. Most restaurants have a copy of their menu available online, so have a look earlier in the day (before hunger or aperitifs weaken your resolve) and commit to ordering one of their healthier options.

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Juliet Hodges
Juliet Hodges
Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK