If you’re a health-conscious person, you’ve probably heard the research showing that simply eating from a smaller plate can help you consume less food overall.
Life hacks like these are what give us faith that anyone can learn better habits, even if we think we don’t have time or can’t will ourselves into making changes. The truth is that many of us feel we’re already doing our best when really we could be doing a lot more for our health.
So here’s an idea: We know it’s not that hard to manipulate the human brain, so why not turn the tables and trick ourselves into better living? The genius of the smaller plate self-trickery got us thinking: How else can science teach us to dupe ourselves into making healthier choices?
If you truly want to upgrade your habits but are…um…realistic about your willpower, it’s time to hack your lifestyle and make the human brain’s gullibility work in your favor. Try these seven science-backed ways you can literally trick yourself into healthier living today.
1. Keep your kitchen clean to cut calories.
Good news for neat freaks, bad news for the rest of us. It turns out that chowing down in a cluttered, chaotic kitchen can actually lead to eating extra calories.
A chaotic environment can create a vulnerability to making unhealthy food choices.
A 2016 study found that women who were asked to spend time in a clean, organized kitchen before making food choices ate significantly fewer calories than a group of women who waited in a chaotic, messy kitchen before snacking.
So what’s going on? “A chaotic environment can create a vulnerability to making unhealthy food choices,” study authors say. So if only we had the power to turn down all the chaos in our lives, we’d be sitting pretty. If you’re looking to trim your calorie consumption, you could set yourself up for success by giving your kitchen a deep clean makeover.
But if you’re among us mere mortals who can’t overhaul our kitchens into a perpetually peaceful place, the authors suggest that taking a short moment to reflect and remind yourself that you’re in control before you eat could help you achieve similar results.
2. Turn up the lights on your dining habits.
What’s the difference between sitting down to dinner in a dark corner booth and eating your meal in a well-lit restaurant? Besides the potential for romance, eating in a dim dining room may be making you put on extra pounds.
A study conducted by food psychology researchers at Cornell University found that not only are brightly lit restaurant-goers nearly 25 percent more likely to choose healthier menu items, those who chowed down in a darker atmosphere ended up ordering 39 percent more calories. Yikes.
But before you break up with your favorite low-light cafe, the scientists involved say that how much attention diners are paying is the real variable.
For instance, when the low-light eaters were given caffeine to perk them up first, they were just as likely to side with the well-lit healthy eaters. So being alert—through light levels, caffeine, or just mindfulness—is the real takeaway trick here.
3. “Crowd out” unhealthy foods.
No doubt you’ve tried deprivation diets before. Cut out sugar, cut out fat, cut out gluten, cut out dairy…it’s hard to get yourself to stick to a plan when so much of the strategy has to do with what you can’t have. This tactic can backfire by perpetuating a deprivation and binging cycle.
Instead of cutting everything out of your diet … focus your attention on adding good foods into your diet
Instead, experts like Integrative Nutrition–certified health coach Christiana Hill recommend tricking yourself into consuming fewer unhealthy things by consuming more healthy things, so there’s no longer space in your diet for the things you shouldn’t have so much of. She calls this a “crowding out” strategy, and the philosophy behind it is deceptively simple yet effective.
“Instead of cutting everything out of your diet (processed food, sugar…etc.),” Hill tells HealthyWay, she recommends “… focus[ing] your attention on adding good foods into your diet first without [worrying about] removing any of the less healthy options.” Makes sense, right?
“When you eat healthy [things] first, you naturally ‘crowd out’ the unhealthy foods,” Hill shared via email. “When you approach dieting this way, you learn to make this more of a lifestyle vs. a quick fix.” Say goodbye to yo-yo dieting.
4. Out of Sight, out of Stomach
The results of a study published in Appetite demonstrated that when unhealthy snacks are within convenient reach, we tend to overeat them far more than if we have to get up and seek out more helpings.
So if you’re trying to control portion sizes, instead of leaving serving dishes out during meals, a good practice is to dish out your dinner then put leftovers away or leave them in the kitchen while you nosh.
The good news is that you can use this out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon to trick yourself into making better choices. By storing nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables in plain sight and in close proximity to your chair, you’ll consume more of what’s good for you.
And by keeping treats like chocolate or chips hidden behind the highest cabinet in the kitchen (or not buying them at all—ahem), you can dupe yourself into eating well.
For example physical and integrative medicine specialist Dr. Zarinah Hud explains to HealthyWay that she recommends a “prep and pretty” strategy to help clients imbibe more of the healthy stuff and less of the junk.
She likes to set out a glass pitcher of water at the beginning of the day that’s spiked with wholesome and pretty combos like cucumber, mint, and berries—and then keep it in clear view and easy reach throughout the day.
“Before you know it you have tricked yourself into getting all of your daily required amount of water, plus the added health benefits of the fruit and herbs,” Hud explains.
5. Spend more time with your fit friends (even if it’s just online).
Did you know that peer pressure can be a good thing? Sure, mob mentality is to blame for lots of rough stuff, but if you align yourself with the right “mob,” you can actually reap the benefits of their good influence.
You probably know that making plans with a running buddy is a great way to ensure you get out on the road in the morning, but research says even just online exposure to posts about your peers’ exercising habits can subliminally encourage you to jump into the challenge.
Recent studies carried out at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that people paired up with groups of “exercise buddies” (anonymous or not) on a social media platform showed clear improvement in frequency and long-term commitment to exercise classes.
After noting these initial results that online exposure to peers’ activity causes a spike in exercise, the studies’ authors have turned to examining whether “social support” or “social comparison” is a better motivator. According to results so far, it turns out, a little friendly competition could be the kick in the pants you need to commit to getting more exercise over time.
6. Set smarter goals.
You’ve heard the saying “life is about the journey, not the destination.” But did you ever think to apply this mentality to your physical fitness? Most of us probably focus on an image of the sweet six-pack we’d like to have in the future instead of trying to motivate ourselves by visualizing all the hours on the treadmill it’ll take.
But maybe that’s an outdated way of setting fitness goals. A study published in International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology is turning this old thinking upside down with its findings that “process goals” are strikingly more helpful in adherence to an exercise program than “outcome goals” over a six-week testing period.
In plain speak, this means that people who focus on how they feel while pursuing an exercise program (instead of obsessing over the results they want to achieve) stick with it at a remarkably higher rate than their outcome-focused peers (not to mention reporting much more enjoyment and lower pressure or tension).
7. Buy workout clothes you love.
Are you still working out in your old school “gym clothes,” even 10 or 15 years (or more) since you’ve left school? It may be time for an update if you want to get more exercise. If your only workout clothes are frumpy sweats you don’t really like, then how do you expect to feel your best and feel energetic when you put them on?
Wearing flattering and fun workout clothes can increase your confidence, and in turn, your overall performance
According to Meghan Kennihan, a National Academy of Sports Medicine–certified personal trainer and Road Runners Club of America/USA Track & Field run coach, “The act of putting on workout gear [especially] for those new to exercise” spurs what she calls “the physical side of a mental shift” toward healthier habits, and she’s not talking about your old torn college t-shirt either.
“Wearing flattering and fun workout clothes can increase your confidence, and in turn, your overall performance, so you get the most out of your workout,” she explains.
We’ve all experienced that strange phenomenon where dressing the part for an occasion can change your whole frame of mind for the better, and it just so happens there’s a name for that: “enclothed cognition.” This means there’s scientific backing to support that you’ll feel better and perform better when you’re wearing what you perceive to be cool workout duds. That’s one good reason for a trip to the mall.
What It All Means
Sure, living a “healthy” lifestyle sounds like a great general plan, but a recent Mayo Clinic study uncovered the truth that less than 3 percent of Americans actually meet all the standards for healthy living (including frequent exercise and good nutrition) laid out by the study’s scientists.
It seems there’s a major disconnect between how healthy we think we’re being and how healthy we really are.
Living a “healthy lifestyle” is a complicated balancing act to be sure, and it’s impossible to achieve without at least a bit of effort. Still, why work harder than you have to? Institute a few of these research-backed hacks today, and over time it’s quite possible you’ll see measurable results.