If your New Year resolutions to eat better didn't work out as planned. Here's Plan B. Trick yourself into eating better.
You can easily set up your kitchen (and some habits) that lead to eat better or less. But since you will know what’s going on, you won’t have to feel tricked.
A while back "Trick Yourself into Eating Better was the title Quartz used for a catchy story on some of our research. It’s about 3 minutes long and has a lot of eye-opening tips and insights. They interviewed one of my post-doctoral fellows, Aner Tal. What’s unusual is how Aner describes why these work in a suave James Bond style and how Quartz cleverly illustrates them. Too cool for school.
Here’s some of what they mentioned:
1. Use lighter plates
2. Use smaller plates
3. Cut your food into pieces
4. Don’t watch TV when you eat
5. No scary movies
6. Don’t shop when you’re hungry (you don't buy more, you buy worse)
7. Deprivation always backfires
Some of these might sound pretty basic, but it’s Aner's description of how they work and Quartz's funny illustrations that really make them pop.
Aner flew out to visit me from Israel a while back, and we were talking about how people react after they hear about some of these discoveries.
Some people hear about suggestions like these and say to themselves “That would never happen to me,” so they don’t try to do anything different, and nothing changes in their life. Other people say to themselves, “Yeah, that makes sense” but they never do it, so, again, nothing changes in their life.
No one is going to hear about 7 discoveries and make 7 changes in their life. It’s too much. But you can make 1 or 2 of them. After they become habits, you can always come back to the table for another course.
No one goes to bed skinny and wakes up fat. Most people gain (or lose) weight so gradually they cannot really figure out how it happened. They do not remember changing their eating or exercise patterns. All they remember is once being able to fit into their favorite pants without having to hold their breathe and hope they can get the zipper to budge.
Sure, there are exceptions. If we gorge ourselves at the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet, then clean out the chip bowl at the Superbowl party, then stop by the Baskin-Robbins drive-through for a “Belly Buster” Sundae on the way home, we realize we have gone too far over the top. But on most days we have very little idea whether we have eaten 50 calories too much or 50 calories too little. In fact, most of us would not know if we ate 200 or 300 calories more or less than the day before.
This is the Mindless Margin. It is the margin or the zone in which we can either slightly overeat or slightly undereat without being aware of it. Suppose you can eat 2000 calories a day without either gaining or losing weight. If one day, however, you only ate 1000 calories, you would know it. You would feel weak, light-headed, cranky, and you would snap at the dog. On the other hand you would also know it if you ate 3000 calories. You would feel a little heavier, slower, and more like flopping on the couch and petting the cat.
If we eat way too little, we know it. If we eat way too much, we know it. But there is a calorie range – a Mindless Margin– where we feel fine and are unaware of small differences. That is, the difference between 1900 calories and 2000 calories is one we cannot detect, nor can we detect the difference between 2000 and 2100 calories. But over the course of a year, this mindless margin would either cause us to lose ten pounds or to gain ten pounds. It takes 3500 extra calories to equal one pound. It does not matter if we eat these extra 3500 calories in one week or gradually over the entire year. They will all add up to one pound.
This is the danger of creeping calories. Just 10 extra calories a day – 1 stick of Double-mint gum or 3 small Jelly Belly jelly beans – will make you a pound more portly one year from today. Only three Jelly Bellies a day.
Fortunately, the same thing happens in the opposite direction.
One colleague of mine, Stacy, had lost around 25 pounds during her first two years at a new job. When I asked how she lost the weight, she could not really answer. After some persistent questioning, it seemed that the only deliberate change she had made two years earlier was to give up caffeine. She switched from coffee to herbal tea. That did not seem to explain anything.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, “And because I gave up caffeine, I also stopped drinking Coke.” She had been drinking about six cans a week – far from a serious habit – but the 139 calories in each Coke translated into 14 pounds a year. When she quit, she was not even aware of why she had lost weight. In her mind all she had done was cut out caffeine.
Herein lies the secret of the Mindless Margin. This Mindless Margin is that small range where we make slight changes to our routine that we hardly notice. Nevertheless, these changes can have a gradual – but eventually big – impact on our weight. They can make the difference between being 10 pounds heavier next New Years Day or 10 pounds lighter.
Cutting out our favorite foods is a bad idea. Cutting down on how much we eat is mindlessly doable. Many fad diets focus more on the typesof foods we can eat rather than how much we should eat. The problem is not that we order beef instead of a low-fat chicken breast. The problem is that the beef is often twice the size. A low-fat chicken breast that we resent having to eat is no better for our long-term diet than a tastier but slightly smaller piece of beef.
If we are looking at only a 100 or 200 calories difference a day, these are not calories we will miss. We can trim them out of our day relatively easy – and unknowingly. The key is to do it unknowingly – mindlessly. It is so much easier to rearrange your kitchen and change a few eating habits so you do not have to think about eating less or differently. This is the silver lining to this dark, cloudy sky. The same things that lead us to mindlessly gain weight can also help us mindlessly lose weight.
How to Meet a Hero and Be a Hero
“Never meet your hero” is a microphone-dropping expression.
Whatever happens, you risk being disappointed, they say. Like seeing a peacock up close, heroes just don’t look so magical in the bright light. Sometimes that’s the fault of them being human; sometimes it’s the fault of the stratospheric expectations we have for every dimension of their life.
This is what people say, but you don't have to believe it.
“Hero” here is being used liberally, and not in the “saving a flaming busload of school children” sense. Bruce Springsteen or Sandra Day O'Connor might be your hero. Your distant uncle or your 12th grade English teacher might be your hero. And you might be a hero to someone because of what you’ve done, given, or who you are.
There are only two books by living authors that I read so many times that their authors became heroes to me. The first book I read 35 times when I was in college. When I graduated, I wrote the American author to thank him, but never heard back.
The second book I read more recently, and have reread my notes of it at least 20 times since. I wrote the French author to thank him, but never heard back. After a couple more tries with a couple other email addresses, I got a short thank you.
My family and I were going to France for a conference over Thanksgiving. In spite of the “Never meet your hero” advice, I emailed this man a couple weeks before we left. I asked if he would like to meet for coffee, lunch, dinner, or whatever. He chose the “whatever” option in a very big way.
Day 1. He and his family took us to dinner
Day 2. Took us on his favorite "hidden surprises of Paris" tour
Day 10. Came over to our apartment for dinner and silly laughs
Day 12. Bid us farewell with a "good luck" college present for my oldest daughter
Here’s what stuck me. What I most wanted to talk about when I met him was his book (and others he wrote). I had 40 hours of questions and praise. Yet that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about for more than just a few minutes. He wanted to talk about marriage, delivering pizza (which we both did as teenagers), kids, ups and downs, faith, food, the 1754 French-Indian War, morning routines, board games, bike riding, . . . almost everything but his books, and that's why Alexis Beuve is a hero to me.
He made me meet him not as a hero, but as a person who had a lot of other meaningful dimensions to connect with. He also did so in a very humble and giving way. This had a much bigger impact on me than if we would have talked 40 hours about his books like I had originally wanted. It made the impact of his books on me even greater.
“All actual heroes are essential people. And all people are possible heroes,” said E.B. Browning. This is easy to forget. We forget to cut our heroes slack – hey, they’re just human.
We might also forget that we could be a hero to someone and we might need to be sure we act humble and human.
We might not be a flaming bus-saving headline hero, but we might be a hero to someone we don’t know. Being that humble, connecting, interested person will be your antidote to the “Never meet your hero” warning.
Related Readings on Heroism
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