As a person whose job it is to help other people eat healthfully, I've noticed that a lot of my time is spent not teaching people about vitamins and minerals and which nutrients are the most important, but rather, teaching people how to talk to themselves. No, not in a weird or senile way, but in an empowering way. In a way that allows THEM to be in control of the cheddar bunnies, rather than allowing their cravings, impulses, peer pressure or other external circumstances to run the cheddar bunny show.
People seem to think that what separates those of us who consistently eat healthfully vs. those of us who struggle to resist (and often times give into) the bagels or donuts is simply self-discipline. Or self-control. Or willpower. Well, I'm here to argue that it's less about discipline and willpower and more about talking to yourself.
I've found that the difference between choosing healthfully vs. choosing unhealthfully boils down to about five immensely important seconds. It's in those five seconds when we get the chance to stop, pause and ask ourselves some of these questions. (Not out loud! In our heads!) And it's the stopping, pausing and asking these questions that separates our abilities to consistently eat clean from eating crap. So quit telling yourself, "Oh I don't have self-discipline" or "I wish I wasn't willpower-less!" and start ASKING to yourself some of these empowering questions:
1.) "Hi, self, how will this ___ [insert tempting unhealthy food here] make me feel in an hour?"
Food makes us feel stuff. Good stuff, bad stuff, energetic stuff, lethargic stuff; all kinds of stuff! So the thing is, since we get to CHOOSE our foods, we ultimately get to choose how we want to feel, are you following? So look at a donut and ask yourself how that'll make you feel in an hour. You answer with "bloated, maybe hungry, possibly cranky or low-blood-sugary."
Okay, good. And then you move onto the next question...
2.) "Is that how I'd LIKE to feel in an hour?"
Again, since we're able to choose our foods based on how we want to feel, we get to decide whether the end result of that food (your answer from question 1) is WORTH IT. With the donut example, do you want to feel bloated, hungry, cranky or low-blood-sugary in an hour? Are those desirable things that you'd like to feel? Is 30 seconds of taste-bud pleasure WORTH feeling that way?
If you're still stuck, you can then ask yourself...
3.) What will I truly gain from eating this when, in approximately 36 seconds from now, the flavor will be gone and I'll just be left with the calories, chemicals and cramps?
Is it fitting in that you'll gain? (Eating a donut just like all your co-workers do.) Or is it momentary taste-bud pleasure that'll be gone as soon as you sip your post-donut coffee? Or is it just guilt that you'll gain -- knowing that you just put something into your body that made you feel less than wonderful. Think about whether the end result is truly worth it for you.
Which is similar to...
4.) "Are you going to regret this? You've successfully avoided ______ [insert unhealthy ingredient or food preparation method here] for so long and you've felt great! Do you really want to break it now?" and "Can I promise that if I eat this now, I won't want to eat other weird/unhealthy things tomorrow?"
Often times, eating just "one bite of" or eating with the mentality of "only today" doesn't really work that way. Yeah, you've had the best intentions there, I'm sure! But just like setting out to watch just one episode of FRIENDS on Netflix turns into a whole SEASON, "single bites" and "only todays" often turn into a lot more bites and days than we intend. So get honest with yourself. Is this a food that, unfortunately, you have no control over? Will one bite lead to a whole season? Okay, wait, I got my metaphors mixed up there. You know what I'm saying.
5.) "Is there any way that NOT eating this might be better than eating it?"
To continue with the TV analogy, perhaps that NOT sitting down to watch one episode (that turns into 12) means you can go for a run! Or call your best friend. Or read something exciting and inspiring. There are a lot of ways that NOT watching tv might be better THAN watching. Same with your food. Is NOT having that donut maybe better than having it? Maybe then you can really have mental clarity for the rest of your work day and put out great work? Or then you can have a cocktail with dinner without feeling like you've gone overboard in the sugar department for the day? Think of ways that it'd be potentially empowering or better in the long run to say NO.
6.) "True or false. Am I wanting to eat this JUST because I'm out and it seems fun/cool?"
Eating's fun! We love to eat! We take photos of our food, we plan evenings around special restaurants, we invite friends over to hang out while eating food; it's a huge "fun factor" in our lives. So think about if you're wanting to eat this unhealthy food just because it'd be FUN! And if you answer "true" to that, then tell yourself this: "Feeling lousy from something unhealthy isn't going to be FUN." True story.
7.) "Am I MAYBE, POSSIBLY, just eating because I'm bored?" "What if I DID something fun? Would that be better than eating something unhealthy right now that SEEMS fun?"
Along the lines of fun, sometimes we also eat because we're having the opposite of fun -- we're BORED. Here's a reality check: eating doesn't make you less bored. Because when you're done eating, you're bored again. Well, bored and probably feeling sluggish from what you just ate to try to NOT be bored.
8.) "Am I maybe just THIRSTY?"
Thirst often disguises itself as hunger or it comes out as cravings. If you're leaning towards some unhealthy options, consider having a big glass of water. It might just flush away that unhealthy desire.
9.) "Let's see if I wait five whole minutes." (Wait those five whole minutes.) "Am I still desiring this unhealthy stuff?"
Along the lines of #7, give yourself a little break. Walk away from the donut. Focus your mind back onto your work. Maybe you'll forget all about the donut. Donut? What donut. OR, maybe you'll be unable to focus on spreadsheets or projections because chocolate glaze is all that's consuming you. If this is the case, go ask yourself some of these other questions before giving into the power of the glaze.
10.) Is this "I love you" food or "f-you" food?
Here's a little self-love action for ya -- think about whether the food you're reaching for is showing your body love or showing your body... not love. When we love our bodies, our bodies love us back. Meaning: when we put food into our bodies that fuel us, nourish us and make us BETTER, our health, happiness and lives become better, too. When we put crap in our bodies that deplete our energy, make us feel gross or hinder our health, it's hard to also be happy, look healthy and live our best lives. So think about whether the food you're about to pop into your mouth shows your body love or flips your body the bird.
Full disclosure: There ARE times, every so often, when even I choose to feel a little sluggish or stray from diet perfection. It might be a few bites of a dairy and gluten-full cake at a wedding, a handful of chips with guac on a Friday, or a little extra maple syrup a la Sunday brunch pancakes, but I can promise you that each time I choose something not perfectly healthy, it's because I've gone through the questions above and have concluded that it IS worth it for me to eat this less-than-healthy food. Eating healthfully is not an all-or-nothing, all-the-time thing, but it IS about being in conscious control of all that's entering your mouth, all the time.