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Picking which meal plan to follow should be the easy part—there are so many different options out there. If you love fish and yummy olive oil, opt for the Mediterranean diet. More of a morning nosher? Intermittent fasting may just be your thing.
Actually sticking to a new way of eating? Now that’s where things get tricky. According to research conducted by Strava, a social network for athletes, people start to falter with their New Year’s resolutions by January 12. And per the US News and World Report, 80% of people will ultimately fail at what they set out to do.
But considering that a healthy diet affects everything from cardiovascular and skin health to the quality of your sleep, healthy eating is one resolution that you should work extra hard to keep. Luckily, there is plenty of behavioral science that can set you up for success and help you stick to your goal even after that initial surge of motivation flees. Here, some science-backed tips that can help.
1. Plan out your meals.
Making decisions can be exhausting—even Barack Obama agrees. In a 2012 interview, he explained why he wore the same suits over and over. “I’m trying to pare down decisions,” he said. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Interestingly, Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg have made similar comments.
These powerful people are onto something. Psychologists say that our decision making skills begin to deteriorate after long periods of, well, decision making. It’s actually called decision fatigue and if you think about it, you can probably find some examples in your own life. For example, after a long day at work it becomes harder to make the right dinner choice. Suddenly, rather than grilling the chicken breast you have in the fridge, you find yourself reaching for the pint of cookie dough ice cream to stave off your hunger. Oops.
If you want to give your willpower a bit of a boost, try taking away as many decisions around food as possible. Instead, embrace the art of meal prepping. For some, that may mean spending your Sunday whipping up healthy staples that will last you through the week. Or, it could mean investing in an Instant Pot so that after long days, you can override the temptation to order pizza and make a hot meal fast.
2. Keep things fresh.
Eating steamed broccoli and salmon for dinner every night may make decision making easy and keep your calories in check, but eventually you’re going to grow weary of having the same freaking thing. And, as your boredom grows, suddenly that chocolate cake becomes harder and harder to resist.
What should you do to keep that boredom at bay? In a study published in Neuron, researchers found that any type of novelty activates the brain’s pleasure centers. Be sure to try out different healthy recipes rather than always relying on your old favorites. Even simple things like passing over the pamplemousse for a different La Croix flavor can help you keep your taste buds entertained.
3. Log what you eat.
Keeping a diary of what you eat helps keep you on track. In fact, the more you log your food, the more weight you’ll lose. The idea is that when you write down what you eat, you’re more likely to take stock of not-so-great choices and change that behavior going forward. And, according to one study, taking photos of your meals may work even better.
Dr. Lydia Zepeda, the head researcher on the study, explains: “We generally process pictures more fully than words. Therefore, I found people were much more likely to notice unhealthy foods or lack of healthy foods in their photos than in their written diaries. Since awareness is necessary to change behavior, the photos help increase awareness.”
4. Stay in the now.
In a 2017 study, people were encouraged to use the Eat Right Now app to practice mindfulness for 10 minutes a day. Amazingly, participants who completed the 28-day study saw a 40% reduction in food related cravings.
So, what gives? Experts say focusing on what you’re doing when you’re doing it can help you make more conscious decisions. Say you eat dinner in front of the television. If you’re so engrossed in what’s going on, you may polish off everything on the plate—regardless of how satiated you are. But if you keep the TV off and instead focus on your hunger level as you eat, you’re more likely to put your fork done when you’re full. Some days that may mean finishing everything, but others it may mean leaving some extra food (and calories!) on the plate.