Food For Thought

Close up of a woman reaching for a dish at the dinner table

How Your Environment Influences Your Diet—and What To Do About It

Coach Caroline, 08/19/2015

If you’re new to a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet, the difficulty of commandeering your mind long enough to consistently make healthy food choices has probably not escaped you. Maybe that struggle is actually what brought you to this website. You might even be like a client of mine who thought this diet style wasn’t for her because she kept slipping back into old eating patterns.

On more than one occasion, I reminded her that a nutrient-dense food plan is heavily supported by scientific research for health and weight loss—so most likely the diet is NOT the problem. The real problem is sticking to the diet. Changing your way of eating is very hard, and if you want the change to stick, almost every area of your life will require modification.

For instance, if your favorite part of the day is decompressing after work with the current prime time lineup and a bottomless bowl of barbecue potato chips, simply deciding not to eat the salty, crunchy snack won’t work. After all, how stimulating is it to sit there like a lump on a log doing nothing? Successfully eradicating the deeply entrenched, self-reinforcing neural pathway connecting TV-to-bad food-to-relaxation will prove near impossible. Once you park your arse in front of the TV, you will hear the inexorable sound of many BBQ neurons firing, followed by the quick attrition of what little willpower you have remaining at the end of the day.

The environment has much more pull on your behavior than you’d like to believe, so if you are a TV snacker aiming to switch to a nutrient-dense diet, you will probably have to find another way to wind down from your day, at least until you break the cue (TV)-response (food) cycle, which will take quite a while.  

Ok, back to the “it’s very hard to change your diet” part. Yes, it is hard, but not impossible. I say this so that when you find yourself repeatedly slipping back into old food addictions, you’ll know it is a typical setback. Backsliding is a normal, although frustrating, part of the change process. Very few people change overnight to a nutrient-dense diet and never look back. In fact, I don’t know of one—do you?

One way to make the change easier (or even possible) is to accept that altering your environment will be necessary. Start by identifying situations, places, or times of day in which you regularly fall off the wagon (like late-night TV, happy hours, or catered luncheons). Are you a sugar addict employed at the local Daylight Donuts, expecting that you will be able to “control” yourself for an hours-long shift?

Do you show love for family by hosting food-centered gatherings, replete with every heart-attack inducing, cancer-causing dish known to man? You may think you should be able to stick to your veggie guns, but it won’t happen. Ask yourself, “What’s more important, my health or another all-day eating frenzy? Why don’t I come up with some fun alternatives for our next get-together?”

A client of mine likes to go out drinking with friends several times a week. She wants to lose weight and realizes a decrease in alcohol consumption is necessary; however, she thinks she can continue attending these near-nightly drinking sessions with her cabal sans alcohol. Basically, she believes—despite repeated failures—that she can go out drinking, only without drinking. Like most people, she hasn’t a clue as to how powerfully the environment influences behavior. The bottom line is this—her drinking behavior will not change until she changes her environment (i.e., stops joining all-night drinking activities).

My assignment to this client is the same for you: make a list of activities that don’t involve food or stimulate the eating drive. If you’re the TV-eater, brainstorm activities that’ll soothe and relax you at the end of the workday. Then make a plan for implementing some of your new, healthier activities. For instance, if you watch fours a night, commit to say, reading the rest of this website and walking the dog for the first two hours. This will work much better if you conduct your new non-food activities before the old comfortable-but-unhealthy pastime. Then finish out the evening with your usual program. If you keep this up long enough, you’ll gradually rid yourself of at least one major environmental eating cue (TV watching), making it much easier to achieve your goal of lifelong healthy eating.

Assignment Recap

  1. Identify eating triggers—where, when, what?
  2. For those triggers over which you have control, make a list of alternatives.
  3. Finally, make a plan for gradually implementing those healthful alternatives while slowly weeding out the unhealthy triggers.




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