Not Another Diet — Principle 3
Center Your Diet Around Foods That Don’t Compel Overeating
Healthy eating has been turned into something complicated and mysterious, mostly by people inventing new foods and diets. Let me assure you, it’s absolutely not.
Eating well isn’t a minefield that requires adopting supplements, juicing, gluten-free foods or believing outrageous, unproven health claims.
That’s a way to sell you things you don’t need. It makes otherwise smart, competent people afraid of eating and pliable to bogus claims. Don’t you want to be healthy?!
I do, and you can too without the supposed benefits or ills of certain foods.
Michael Pollan boiled it down to “eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” His book, Food Rules is the best guide I‘ve read on what to eat. He means food from ingredients we all recognize, not things made to look and sound like food but are actually different ways to serve us corn.
If that’s the last word on good eating, what do I have to add to the fray?
Plenty. My take is less about telling you exactly what to eat, more on navigating the real world. Books like Food Rules are helpful in pointing people towards healthy choices. I’m going to help you figure out how to protect those ideas in the real world.
Eating well remains difficult not because it’s complicated but because the choices are hard even when they’re clear.
Your body goes into overdrive for the exact thing you least need to eat. I’ve found limiting access is one of the key methods to breaking that cycle.
The real minefields aren’t ingredient culprits (except for refined sugar) but in how we conduct our lives. It would be great if all we ever wanted to eat were salads or vegetable dishes, but chances are good your diet includes all sorts of things. Some more healthy than others.
Since my goal is to consume less food overall (I eat on average about a third less than I used to before I lost the weight), I work to protect my ability to do that by severely limiting foods that encourage me to overeat.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I place food in two main categories, food that makes you overeat and food that doesn’t.
What does it mean to overeat? It’s when you feel compelled to keep eating past the point of satiety because it has the sort of taste that is intensely pleasurable. It’s too hard to stop, so you generally finish it all off in one go or very quickly.
Overeating can also happen when you can’t leave something alone. If I’m sitting on the couch reading, or otherwise not thinking about eating and something I have in the fridge or cupboard calls to me, that’s a dead giveaway this item shouldn’t be in my home.
Here’s a short, and not-comprehensive list of the foods that do that to me: candy bars, cookies, waffles, toasted bread with butter, macaroni and cheese, waffles, french fries, Wawa buffalo chicken quesadilla (I know, things happen), and cupcakes of any kind.
I handle the problem by applying this simple litmus test to every single thing I buy or order:
Does this food compel me to overeat?
Other variations include, will I be able to put my fork down when I am no longer hungry? Can I take it home and eat it moderately?
These questions keeps me out of trouble when I’m grocery shopping or picking a restaurant, and I use it to observe how I respond to new foods.
At the grocery store: I don’t buy any foods that compel me to overeat. Period, none, zero. This approach keeps me from striding past the pastries and thinking, “I’ve been good lately, why not have a treat?”. I make it easy on myself later on at home by avoiding the battle of, don’t eat it all in one go! It’s not in my home, there’s no temptation and it’s that much easier to make myself a plate of something nourishing and easy to put down. Be brutally honest with yourself about what those foods are.
Eating out: I use that question before even picking the restaurant. If the menu has largely caloric items I know I will eat too much of, pass. I pick Asian restaurants (real ones, not PF Changs or the like), whole-food based concepts like CAVA, or dinner places like my restaurant that make real food from scratch. The idea is to make it easy on myself to be good. I’ll discuss in future principles how I navigate my social life with these requirements. Suffice it to say, I’m firm on not placing myself in harms way.
Correcting a slip-up: occasionally I get lured into buying a new food that seems fine on the surface but ends up being a problem when I get home. I recently bought a box of low-calorie ice cream treats. Should have been okay, they were made with a sugar substitute and individually wrapped. Nope, I ate the whole box in a 12 hour window. I didn’t beat myself up, or give up on my healthy eating, but I’ll also never buy it again. It’s not a food that supports my health goals, bu-bye!
At a friend’s house: there’s so much more to say about navigating food and friendship. As it relates to this piece I try to cultivate friendships with people who are likeminded or respect how I eat. If I know the invitation is centered around food that compels me to overeat, chances are good I just won’t go. There’s always a next time, and often I’ll take a walk instead which never feels like a consolation prize.
Pro-tip: Stay away from packaged foods while you are transitioning your diet. What so many of us don’t realize is that many of these foods are engineered to light up our primal brains. Companies want you to eat more and buy often. There’s a good reason they pay food scientists a lot of money for their products to affect you in this way. It works.
We have sacrificed our ability to stop eating for convenience.
I won’t pretend these were all easy to choices to make at the onset, but over time they have become automatic. I’ve seen how powerful it is to set myself up for success, and I know that limiting my food choices to ones that allow me to put down my fork are essential.