Ten Tips for Food Resolutions That Actually Stick
1. Ditch the Deprivation. If how you are trying to eat is hard, if you are fighting yourself, attempting to control or defeat your appetite, you will make your appetite bigger, more rapacious, more craving of cupcakes. Decide to have fun being healthy.
2. Form versus Content. Resolve to focus more on the form of your meals and eating than the content. In other words, the how (where, when and with whom) over the what (calories, carbs, gluten, etc). If you spend time thinking positively about your meals—channel Euro vibes in this, as in, make plans to eat with style and panache and deliberation—and how they will be maximally enjoyed, the default will be that you make better choices and are more aware about what you choose to eat. Hammering away only at “what” you are eating—which is what most diets or eating plans do—gets stale and stops working after a while.
3. Bring Structure Back. Modern life and technology have made it possible to do anything anywhere. We can go shopping while we wait in line at the airport; we can go to work in our living room, wearing jammies. While this has been empowering, eliminating barriers and difficulties, it has also weakened the structure that came from things happening in certain places, at certain times. I call it the “yoga-pants-ification” of everyday life, and it has profoundly changed our eating habits. Because, like kids, or dogs, we need some structure in our lives. And because ritual is a kind of structure, modern technologies are de-ritualizing how we eat. The biproduct of this has been the reducing of our reverence for food at the very time we are more bombarded with scary information about it than ever. The antidote is to bring back some structure to mealtimes, giving meals space and time to be appreciated. Use them as necessary breaks in the stream of your day, which is what they have always been. Take time to eat. This is also an expression of love to yourself, that you perceive consciously and subconsciously.
4. Let Food Be What It Is. Accept that food and eating are complex, symbolic and paradoxical. Eating has never been a purely biological or physical act for we humans, at least not since “we” meant “homo sapiens.” How we eat is a complex cultural ritual, it is emotionally charged and symbolic of love, and it is a physical instinct more powerful even than the urge to pro-create. It is all these things, at the same time. If you try to pretend that it is “just physical,” you are lying to a larger, wiser part of yourself that knows its cultural significance, and believes in its symbolic power and meaning. You are also trying to fight millions of years of evolution. The backfiring of this unwinnable battle often becomes the bigger problem most people have with food.
5. Banish Takeout for a Time. Takeout is a message to your subconscious that you are not worthy enough for a meal at a table, on a plate, with a real fork. It always seems like a good idea—that you are saving time in some way. But the thing you are saving time from is you, and your life right here, right now. Not the life you are supposed to be having, but the one you actually have.
6. Schedule Your Bad Habits. If you have a really stuck, “bad” habit, and you’ve tried everything, throw a wrench in it. Schedule your bad habit. Make time for it—bring it into consciousness, into the light. Say, every day at 4pm I am going to have four donuts. Or at 10pm I am going to eat an entire pizza. Or whatever. If you take the forbiddenness away, and the label “bad,” you will slowly starve the habit of its power. I know this is scary, but it works.
7. Rethink Your Spirals. If you change any part of a spiral, you change all of it. And sometimes it is easier to change the end of the spiral, rather than the beginning. Let’s say you have a trigger, such as workplace stress. Then you indulge that trigger, then feel gross, then guilty and terrible for indulging your trigger, then angry at yourself for not catching yourself beforehand. Try coming at your bad habit from the back end. Part of any bad habit—and a part that we are just as hooked on—is the guilt and self-recrimination. We think these negative feelings are necessary for us to change, but in fact it is the opposite—they are often the behavior’s driving force. If you have a compulsive eating habit, you are using food as a weapon. The weapon’s power comes from the negative feelings you heap on yourself. Refuse to feel bad for making a mistake. Talk to yourself like a friend or a mom, and not like a devil critic. Try letting go of those automatic negative emotions and criticisms, first, and see that “being bad” loses some of its gravitational force, and you are more likely to realize you don’t actually want to punish yourself before you go down a rabbit hole next time.
8. Try Not to Eat & Screen. I love to mix my pleasures. I like Pina Coladas on the beach, popcorn in bed while reading, hot tea in the bathtub. But, other kinds of mixing don’t work. This is because pleasure in food is a marginal thing. The tomatoes left to ripen for just a few more days on the vine develop flavors that are transcendent. A quarter teaspoon more salt or a squeeze of lemon juice transform a dish. The perfect crunch of toasted nuts paired with the buttery give of avocado; the subtle difference between a melon that is mealy versus perfectly ripe. These tiny improvements—call them the final 5% on a graded scale of deliciousness—yield large gains in yumminess, and satisfaction, and enjoyment. But not if you are eating while swiping or scrolling or texting or typing—in other words eating with only half your attention. Especially with healthy food, whose pleasures are more subtle, attention is a key ingredient. If you are only partially attuned to your meal, you will not enjoy it as much, and you will crave less wholesome foods that mindlessly spike your taste buds and pleasure centers. Fried stuff, pizza, hamburgers (I love all these things, but you should eat them because you really crave them, not because they go well with a screen). Screen eating becomes more primal, more animalistic, and less good.
9. Use Food as a Social Medium (Because that’s what it is). Food is social glue, and has been, some argue, since we huddled around the first campfires together. Many food historians believe that cooking and gathering around the campfire was the beginning of culture—it began to order our days into common rituals that were not only for survival. Eating cooked meals, together, carved out times for reflection and story, for eye contact and empathy. In eating, we process kilocalories of fat, protein and carbohydrate into molecules our body uses to build and fuel itself, but in eating together we process what is going on in our lives. We sync up, talk, reflect, make meaning of all the nonsense. This is the definition of culture. Most food abuses happen when we eat alone or in isolation and shame. And diets that are isolating and anti-social are at odds with food’s greater purpose and so usually don’t last. So, as much as you can, eat with other people. Eat with friends, family, or eat by yourself at a restaurant, with people whose job it is to serve you, and who—I promise—would love to see you in all your solo glory.
10. Write Your Own Self-Help Book. For a long time I have thought that most diet and self-help books take for granted the most important thing—whatever happened to the writer that catalyzed a willingness to change. And, then, in writing the book they clarify for themselves the powerful change they have undergone and share it with others. If there is something stuck about your life or your eating habits, what you need is not a list of instructions, but a shift in perspective, a willingness to change. And, then, you need to write your own book!