When you’re getting started on your health journey, it’s relatively easy to begin your day with a healthy breakfast and quick login on MyFitnessPal. But as the days and weeks go on, sticking with your eating plan can become a struggle, especially since cutting calories to lose weight can sometimes cue hunger bells and cravings for high-fat, high-sugar comfort foods.
“No diet should make you avoid certain foods, but you do need some compromise and limits,” says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD. If you feel like you’ve been giving in to your cravings more often lately, setting simple boundaries can help you establish and maintain a healthy relationship with all foods. To set yourself up for your success, focus on tweaking your mindset and your environment.
Often, the moment you put foods on the “no” list, they move over to the “must-have” list and you end up overeating them after depriving yourself for too long, then feeling guilty and even hopeless. Instead of completely cutting out certain “bad” foods, give yourself permission to eat all foods in moderation. Remember: There are no “good” or “bad” foods — there’s room for healthier and less-healthy foods in every diet). Think of the not-so-healthy foods you cannot live without, and then schedule a time to enjoy them in healthy portions each week, suggests Kostro Miller. For example, buy a snack-size bag of potato chips to go with your lunch from time to time (instead of avoiding chips all week then emptying a large bag in one sitting).
Another easy way to create boundaries: Turn your favorite treat into an event, says Kostro Miller. This works especially well for junk foods like ice cream and pizza that might be best kept out of your house if you tend to overeat when they’re readily available. For example, instead of keeping a pint of ice cream in your freezer, schedule a special time during the week (like Sunday afternoons) to go out for ice cream sundaes or milkshakes with your friends or family.
Before you chow down, pause for just a few seconds to check in. Ask yourself: Am I really hungry, or am I eating for some other reason? Besides true hunger, there are a number of triggers that might drive you to reach for food including boredom, anxiety, stress, tiredness, loneliness or simply the habit. If you realize you’re not actually hungry, take this time to deal with your feelings in a positive manner (rather than turning to food). This could mean calling a loved one, taking a brisk walk or journaling.
If your hunger bells are ringing, listen to them, says Leah Forristall, RD. “Don’t let yourself get too hungry before you eat, as this often leads you to make less healthy choices,” she says. If you’ve eaten a healthy meal but still feel hungry, satisfy your cravings with a healthy dessert like a bowl of fruit or a yogurt parfait.
When you’re eating something you know you tend to binge on (like pizza or fried foods), slow down and try to make your meal last a full 20 minutes, says Kostro Miller. Instead of eating until you’re uncomfortably full, think of your stomach as a vessel and eat until you’re 80% full, she suggests. When you eat mindfully and with intention, you’re less likely to overeat (and end up with food guilt).
When you make time for your kryptonite foods, make the most of the moment by eating mindfully. Put away your phone, turn off the TV, and sit down at a table (not your desk). Then, portion out the food on a plate, take in its appearance and smell, and soak up how you feel, says Laura Cason, RD. Put a small amount in your mouth and notice the flavor and texture first. After you’ve finished eating, ask yourself: How does this experience compare to how I usually eat? Boosting your awareness of how you feel before, during and after your meals can help you improve your relationship to the foods you tend to eat too quickly.
Having a plan is great, but knowing how to compromise when you don’t quite stick to it is essential for your long-term success, too, says Kostro Miller. For example, before you go to a party (where you know there will be a buffet full of temptations), set some boundaries (if you know you tend to overdo it on alcohol and dessert, choose one instead of both).
Of course, if you overdo it on drinks and dessert, the key is to remember setbacks are a normal part of the process — and you can always get back on your plan the next day, says Kostro Miller. Instead of getting down on yourself (and potentially stress-eating as a result), write down what went “wrong” and what you can do next time to make a better decision, she suggests. For example, if you overate at a party, reach for a small salad plate next time to stick to healthier portions or try sipping water between drinks.
If you can’t help yourself when it comes to a certain food, one of the easiest things you can do is avoid buying it and keep it out of your home, says Kostro Miller. With this “out of sight, out of mind” technique, you’re not necessarily restricting yourself — it’s just not there. After all, “it’s much easier to fight temptations when they aren’t staring back at you from your kitchen cabinet,” she says. If you buy some of your favorite foods, store them on the highest shelf in your pantry or freeze them for special occasions to keep them away from your day-to-day eating routine.
Rather than grabbing cookies, candy, chocolate, cake and chips all at once at the grocery store, treat yourself to one splurge per week. This way, you’re not surrounded by temptations and can make a healthier choice most of the time with far more nutritious foods on hand.
If your kryptonite food is chips or candy, don’t eat them straight from the bag. Instead, divide them out into snack-size bags to help yourself eat in moderation without feeling tempted or restricted, says Shena Jaramillo, RD. If you know you’re not going to make time for snack prep, then just buy healthy snacks (like nuts) in pre-portioned versions, adds Forristall.
Healthful snacks and foods should always be visible and available in your home, says Forristall. Swap a line of chip bags on your counter for a bowl of fruit or an oatmeal-making station, and store freshly chopped veggies and fruits in eye-level glass containers in your fridge.