I like to think I generally eat pretty well. If we’re grading on ‘Good for your life goals’, where Team Sky’s micro-orchestrated protein-and-carb consumption is a 10, and crisp sandwiches for a breakfast every day is a zero, I’m probably about a 7: pretty good, occasional slip-ups. I eat a hell lot of greens, get protein at every meal, cook close to 100 percent of everything I eat at home from scratch, and only occasionally go crazy and inhale an entire packet of Jammie Dodgers.
The thing is: I have some willpower, but not lots – and what I do have, I like to use on other things, like work, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and pull-ups. Also, I love shitty food: maybe it’s because I’m from the North of England, maybe it’s because my workmates used to placate me with biscuits, or maybe it’s just because sugar is delicious. So eating ‘right’ – in a way that fits my goals in life – doesn’t always come easy. Fortunately, I have read, tried, and adopted or discarded every ‘How to eat better’ tip you’ve ever seen, and about three times as many that you haven’t. Here’s what actually works for me:
1. Not now, but soon
This four-word phrase is more likely to stop me making bad food decision than any other: including ‘Think of the trans-fats!’ and ‘Wait, that doughnut’s poisoned.’ I (like you, probably) don’t respond well to the word ‘Never’ – but putting things off? I can do that for a long time. When I fancy a pizza, I tell myself ‘Have it on Friday, when it’s the end of the week and well-deserved.’ When I really want a Twinkie: ‘Save it for after the Big Project’s done.’ The trick? When these times come, Twinkies and pizza are usually inaccessible or unappealing. You don’t have to swear off the food forever: you just need to tell yourself ‘You can have one soon, big guy’, and get out of the danger zone.
2. Not keeping bad stuff in the house
If there is bread in the house, I will eat it. If there are biscuits in the office, I will eat all the biscuits. This is fine, because I’m also quite lazy: usually, just not having the bad things to hand is enough to stop me going out and getting any. My rule of thumb: accept that buying a packet of treats means eating all the treats, and do it very, very rarely.
3. ‘I’m not eating/drinking [X] right now’
This is how I deal with well-intentioned friends/family/colleagues trying to give me biscuits/beer/whatever else. Crucially, not ‘I can’t’ or ‘I shouldn’t’ (which imply that you’re sad about the situation) or ‘I’m trying not to’ (which reframes the whole process as a struggle in your own traitorous brain), but ‘I’m not.’ This stops most negotiation or temptation or ‘Go on, just one…’ manoeuvres dead – but more importantly, removes the willpower thing entirely. For extreme cases – sugary pop, say – ‘I don’t eat [X]’ is also acceptable.
4. ‘Mental note: [X] makes you feel like shit’
Here’s a fun fact: I regularly ate Krispy Kremes for much longer than I should have, just because they kept tricking me with their nice colours and front-of-shop placement. Every time I actually ate one, I’d remember that a) They weren’t all that great and b) They made me feel terrible afterwards. This lasted all the way up until my wife went ‘Wait, don’t you hate Krispy Kremes?’ as I lunged for an Original Glazed, and I’ve never eaten a Krispy Kreme since. Here’s the trick: when you eat something and feel like crap afterwards, note that feeling. Internalise it. Next time you want the thing: remember it.
HOMEWORK: Eat something that’s terrible for you this week. Note how it makes you feel, and then don’t eat it again.