diets · eating · overeating

Hack your nutrition

So if i trust my body, but not 100%, what can I do to steer me, in a non restrictive way, to better food choices?

I’m interested in hacks, that is, in quick and unexpected fixes for hard problems.

Mostly what I’m interested in are changes in environment that influence choice. Cass Sunstein in his book Nudge outlines a variety of ways in which structuring choice situations differently leads people to better choices (as judged by their own lights) without making rules that govern behavior. You can read about Sunstein’s libertarian paternalism here.

Here is a great example from that book, one which actually concerns nutritional choices. The study concerned people selecting food from a self serve cafeteria. The intervention was intended to get people to choose more fruits and vegetables without coercive measures. All that researchers did was change the order of the food being selected. Putting fruits and vegetables first meant that people chose them and left less room on their plates and trays for processed alternatives.

What changes in our lives can we make that are ‘nudge’ like? I’m not talking about restrictions. Calorie restricted diets don’t interest me and I’m not convinced they work. Instead, I’m interested in environmental approaches that change the choice scenario.

We were chatting about environmental changes lots at the implicit bias conference I was attending on the weekend. One slogan, used by a social psychologist, caught my ear: automate, don’t ruminate. Make good choices easy and automatic. Setting yourself up to think too much is more likely to lead to failure.

We know this of course from the literature on habit. I’ve written here about how good habits are key to change. So it’s not about harsh rules and struggles, deep thought and massive amounts of will power.

But what sorts of changes might we made regarding nutritional choices?

Precision Nutrition has a number of habits they encourage people to establish. Eating when hungry, eating slowly, eating to 80% full, eating protein, vegetables and healthy fats with every meal, choosing better carbs.

Like the cafeteria example, we might think in terms of eating veggies first. Some people recommend eating vegetable soup before each meal. That sounds tedious to me but I do eat raw chopped veggies before dinner on most days. I don’t eat standing up or while doing something else. Vegetables are an exception to that general rule.

I also try not to bring food into the house I don’t want to eat. John Berardi at PN urges people to clean house and get rid of food that they don’t want to eat. He jokingly says that if you bring food into your house odds are that sooner or later you or someone you love will eat it.

I agree with Tracy that there are no ‘evil’ foods but there are annoying foods that I inevitably eat more of than I would like. It’s not that they’re a great treat. I’m a big fan of delicious treats. These are foods I’d rather not eat but can’t resist if they’re there.

Tracy is skeptical about claims that we’re addicted to certain foods and I agree but at the same time there are foods that seem engineered to get me to eat more than I want.

There’s also a number of tools to help you eat more slowly. The the hapi fork isn’t for me but some people also have success slowing down by eating with their non dominant hand. Others use chopsticks, if that’s not familiar cutlery.

Why eat more slowly? It’s tied to the 80% idea. It takes awhile for our bodies to recognize how much we’ve eaten

Others like to eat using small plates and small forks. The small plates encourage us to take smaller servings and to feel like we’re eating more. The smaller forks just slow you down.

My family jokes about the American cutlery we bought. The spoons are enormous. No one wants to eat using the tablespoons and the teaspoons are just about the right size for cereal, etc.

Dish colours also make a difference in how much you eat. Aiming to eat less? Worst are dishes the same colour as the food you’re eating. Better are plates a different colour than your food. Best of all are blue plates, possibly because no food is that colour.

Read about blue plates here. I own blue plates but I didn’t buy them for that reason.


The only restrictive rule I’m trying to adopt is limiting dessert to twice a week. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Do you have any nutritional hacks or tips that you like? Please share.


13 thoughts on “Hack your nutrition

  1. Hugely helpful, Sam! The 80% rule is my big challenge. I’ve always been a fast eater so my habit is to finish my plate and then drink the rest of my beverage (wine or juice with ice, depending on the day) slowly while trying not to be embarrassed at my insane eating speed (honestly, I’m even faster than boys). I try hard not to over-portion but it can be a challenge not to go back for a bit more while I’m waiting for others to finish. I’m going to give the non-dominant hand thing a go!

    Meanwhile, can I ask which precision nutrition stuff you’ve found most useful for you?

    Re: dessert, best of luck! If you’d like a great recipe, I have a marvellous one for a nearly-healthy cheesecake (lots of goat curd soft cheese, very little butter and sugar, no crust) that can be dressed with fruit compote of your choice.


    1. I like the pn community, more sports performance less weight loss. Lots of focus on gaining muscle. Biggest tips? The usual stuff, lots of veggies, protein, good fats and smart carbs. But the 80 percent full and eating slowly is key.

  2. How about keeping very *small* dessert options in the house? I don’t often crave dessert, but when I do I find that craving is almost always satisfied by, say, a cookie or (better) a truffle. But if you *serve* me an entire piece of cake, I will eat it.

    1. Yes, the very small cheese cake bite things used to be good that way. It’s a good idea. Will look for some small serving options.

  3. Mindless Eating is a great book that is contains a program for food hacks. It’s the Cornell Nutrition Lab guy. But he is mostly focused on hacks that help you cut down on calorie-dense foods to lose weight slowly. This does involve making nutrition-dense foods like fruits and vegetables more visible.

    My doctor’s food hack for me: eat an apple and a banana before dinner. Then you won’t have a second plate of pasta because you will have spoiled your dinner. It works, but you have to actually do it for it to work.

  4. Stopping eating when I feel only 80% full is, to me, harsh and definitely restrictive. Eating slowly I do when I can (especially desserts which I’ve always preferred to savour slowly, enjoying them with a tiny spoon or taking small nibbles of finger foods) but this simply is not always possible. The two things which are most successful for me in terms of promoting healthy food choices are:

    1. Never go to the grocery store hungry. If I step in that place feeling hungry, I will load my cart up with high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt, highly-processed things. When I shop feeling sated, I purchase only what’s on my list.

    2. Work out. The more I work out, the healthier food choices I make. The more sedentary I am, the more junk I consume. When I’m physically active, overly sweet and salty things are unappetizing to me. Sitting around all day, however, I crave potato chips and chocolate cake. The desk job is a killer, and high-intensity workouts have the greatest positive effect, but even a half hour hike between desk and dinner will cause me to eat a healthier dinner.

    1. I like these! (#2 especially resonates for me.) I find that I eat foods that make me feel best when I cook my own food– regular meals with some standard structure (including protein, a starch, and one or more veg or fruits) do the trick. If I eat a meal that misses one of the components, my body doesn’t register it somehow and I’ll wind up grazing and looking for what I’m missing. And I always feel better when I bring my lunch instead of buying. But I don’t at all restrict the items I eat. Baking cake or frying gyoza is very time-consuming, but on the rare occasion I do, I enjoy it!

  5. Whether food in general or specific foods are “addictive” in the true sense of that word, I have no clue. It seems to me, however, that some of us simply can’t resist “food itself” if we allow ourselves to truly indulge, and of course the foods that for whatever reason make us want to devour them completely, like a complete bag of maple leaf cookies in about a day or a day and a half, become the most problematic of all. So – no maple leaf cookies are allowed in the house, or I kid you not, they will be devoured in a day or a day and a half. Does that make me addicted to them? I don’t know. But I do know myself, and I do know I’ll eat them – all of them, in a binge, sooner or later. But all such “theory” aside, I agree with you, Sam, when you say that you must make a habit of eating well. If it doesn’t become habitual, it would be very difficult to resist the unhealthy foods which surround us and especially those on which we just know we’ll overindulge ourselves. So for me – no dessert ever. That’s the discipline – and it’s become the habit. As for healthier choices, I have big containers of hydrolyzed whey protein at home and at work. Some of these taste quite good. They are my snacks – 25 grams of protein and only 100 calories, and to reiterate, they taste good. It’s harder if you are vegan, however, because the vegan protein shakes do not taste very good.

  6. Also, for people more “on the run”, such protein shakes come in individual packets. All you need then is water and a shaker cup of some sort.

  7. My best hacks to consider: How far did this food have to travel to get to my store and table? Am I in agreement that this food will have benefit to its consumption? Do I want to give my money over to the producer? Is the food genetically modified? Grown responcibily? I think food is about a lot more than nutrients and personal and internal physical benefits. Food is something to respect. Simplifying our hyper awareness of nutrients and combining this with an awareness for the earth and its bodily needs of important to me. I am not separate from the earth and what we do to it in order to sustain human life. Thinking this way helps me eat reasonable portions while finding the best quality foods that I can afford and agree to eat.

  8. Eating 80% full is something that is part of how I’ve eating for past few decades –except I didn’t realize it until a few years ago. Sure, I’ll gorge for certain occasions.

    Hmmmm. Chopsticks haven’t slowed me down! But not eating in front of computer (my bad habit), and no tv (no worries, I don’t have one), might help too.

  9. I don’t eat breakfast until later in the morning. If I eat as soon as I wake up, I feel hungrier for the rest of the day. I’m up early (five am) so it’s water and lemon, black coffee, kids off to school, running or a half hour circuit, and to work. I then have porridge or fruit and youghurt about 8.30ish.

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