10 Simple Ways to Eat Healthy Without Thinking, Backed by Science

Your environment has an incredible ability to shape your behavior.

I have written previously about choice architecture and environment design, both of which are focused on the idea that, “By making small changes to the physical environment around you, it can become much easier to stick to good habits.”

And while the research studies I have shared in those articles are interesting, I thought it might be useful to list some practical ways to apply environment design to your world and make it easier to live a healthy, happy, and adventurous life.

With that in mind, here are 10 simple strategies for designing your environment to eat healthy without thinking and spend more of your time and energy on doing something awesome.

Keep in mind, these ideas are just a start. You can apply these concepts for designing your environment and creating better “choice architecture” to almost any habit or behavior.

How to Eat Healthy Without Noticing

Before we begin, let’s give credit to the researcher behind many of these ideas. Brian Wansink is a professor at Cornell University and he has completed a variety of studies on how your environment shapes your eating decisions. Many of the ideas below come from his popular book, Mindless Eating.

1. Use smaller plates. Bigger plates mean bigger portions. And that means you eat more. According to a study conducted by Wansink and his research team, if you made a simple change and served your dinner on 10-inch plates instead of a 12-inch plate, you would eat 22% less food over the course of the next year.

On a related note, if you’re thinking “I’ll just put less food on my plate” … it’s not that simple. The picture below explains why. When you eat a small portion off of a large plate, your mind feels unsatisfied. Meanwhile, the same portion will feel more filling when eaten off of a small plate. The circles in the image below are the same size, but your brain (and stomach) doesn’t view them that way.

This image shows how small portion sizes can look filling on a small plate, but sparse on a large plate.
This image shows how small portion sizes can look filling on a small plate, but sparse on a large plate.

2. Make water more readily available. Most of us mindlessly take a swig of soda or a sip of coffee as we do other tasks. Try this instead: buy a large bottle water and set it somewhere close to you throughout your day. You’ll find that if it’s sitting next to you, you’ll often opt for water instead and avoid less healthy drink options naturally.

Note: I love this water bottle because it holds a good amount of water and folds up small enough to fit in a backpack, purse, or pocket. It’s perfect for travel too.

3. Want to drink less alcohol or soda? Use tall, slender glasses instead of short, fat ones.

Take a look at the image below. Is the horizontal or vertical line longer?

Like the lines in this photo, vertical glasses will look bigger horizontal ones and will therefore naturally help you drink less.
Like the lines in this photo, vertical glasses will look bigger than horizontal ones and will therefore naturally help you drink less.

As it turns out, both lines are the same length, but our brain has a tendency to overestimate vertical lines. In other words, taller drinks look bigger to our eyes than round, horizontal mugs do. And because height makes things look bigger than width, you’ll actually drink less from taller glasses. In fact, you will typically drink about 20% less from a tall, slender glass than you would from a short, fat glass. (Hat tip to Darya Pino for originally sharing this image and idea.)

4. Use plates that have a high contrast color with your food. As I mentioned in this article, when the color of your plate matches the color of your food, you naturally serve yourself more because your brain has trouble distinguishing the portion size from the plate. Because of this, dark green and dark blue make great plate colors because they contrast with light foods like pasta and potatoes (which means you’re likely to serve less of them), but don’t contrast very much with leafy greens and vegetables (which means you’re likely to put more of them on your plate).

5. Display healthy foods in a prominent place. For example, you could place a bowl of fruits or nuts near the front door or somewhere else that you pass by before you leave the house. When you’re hungry and in a rush, you are more likely to grab the first thing you see.

6. Wrap unhealthy foods in tin foil. Wrap healthy foods in plastic wrap. The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” turns out to have some truth to it. Eating isn’t just a physical event, but also an emotional one. Your mind often determines what it wants to eat based on what your eyes see. Thus, if you hide unhealthy foods by wrapping them up or tucking them away in less prominent places, then you are less likely to eat them.

7. Keep healthy foods in larger packages and containers, and unhealthy foods in smaller ones. Big boxes and containers tend to catch your eye more, take up space in your kitchen and pantry, and otherwise get in your way. As a result, you’re more likely to notice them and eat them. Meanwhile, smaller items can hide in your kitchen for months. (Just take a look at what you have lying around right now. It’s probably small cans and containers.)

Bonus tip: if you buy a large box of something unhealthy, you can re-package it into smaller Ziploc bags or containers, which should make it less likely that you’ll binge and eat a lot at once.

8. Serve meals by using the “half plate” rule. You can design your eating environment as well. When you serve yourself dinner, start by making half of your plate fruits or vegetables. Then, fill the rest of the dish based on that constraint.

9. Use the “Outer Ring” strategy to buy healthier foods. The concept is simple: when you go grocery shopping, don’t walk down the aisles. Only shop on the outer perimeter of the store. This is usually where the healthy food lives: fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, and nuts. If you only shop on the outer ring, then you’re more likely to buy healthy foods. And that, of course, means you’re more likely to eat healthy foods when you get home.

10. And for the tenth strategy, let’s apply these concepts to some other areas of life…

Applying Environment Design to the Rest of Your Life

When you really break down each of these strategies, you’ll see that each one is a small tweak that puts more steps between you and the bad behaviors and fewer steps between you and the good behaviors.

For example…

  • Wrapping unhealthy foods in tin foil adds another step. You have to see the dish, then open it to see what is inside, then decide to eat it. (Rather than just spotting some leftovers in plastic wrap and grabbing them.)
  • Using small plates adds another step between you and eating more. If you want more, you have to go back for seconds and fill up again.

You can take this same approach to almost anything in life. If you want to make a bad behavior more difficult, then increase the number of steps between you and the behavior.

Meanwhile, if you want to make a good behavior easier, reduce the number of steps between you and the behavior. For example, if you want to make it easier to go for a run then lay out your shoes and running gear the night before you exercise. One less step between you and your workout.

10 Comments

  1. Great thoughts on healthy food habits! I would like to add some more habits in this list.

    1. We should not watch TV or read anything while having our food.
    2. Instead of having food three times a day, we can split into five times per day.

    Your insights on these tips is much appreciated.

  2. Thank you, James. These are very simple rules anyone can follow. Agree with all 10. One of this strategies works well in my family. My teenage boys are always in a “munch” mood. So, I wash, slice, cut and peel fruits and veggies, and put them in the fridge in a clear plastic container. These colorful and healthy assortment always catches their eye. I make sure I have a bowl of cut-up fruits and veggies with homemade dip, and some other healthy snack ready for the family movie night. This is very simple, just requires thinking ahead a bit. My friends tried a simple trick that was very effective: instead of putting pots and bowls with the food on the dinner table, they would leave them on the kitchen counter. Everybody would fill their plates and go sit down at the table. They said, they rarely went back for seconds.

  3. I guess that spreading food thin on a flat plate might help as well. I struggle with a somewhat opposite problem, you see, and a big (some would argue…) round bowl helps me to ensure that I get enough food for a meal. So, leaving some nuts on my desk seems like a great idea, too :).

    Maura

  4. Great tips! We’ve implemented the smaller plates at our house as well with great success.

    Also — I still don’t believe you the horizontal and vertical lines are same size! Ha.

    Thanks for the post.

  5. Great article!

    Another thing that works really well is not having the serving dishes on the dinner table. Instead leave them in the kitchen. People are more reluctant to get up and get a second serving of food from the kitchen! This trick helps you eat less and works great.

  6. Just wanted to point out that the effect of the image on No. 3 is reversed if you tilt the image 90 deg. i.e. It is more likely an effect of the line being “partitioned” into two, than whether it was vertical or horizontal. This was pointed out by a commenter Thomas on the Summertomato page.

    That said, I’m not trying to negate your point about tall glasses, but the proof didn’t seem quite valid. Cheers.

    • Very savvy point. Thanks for sharing that, Ong! You’re making me rethink the idea as well. I still think it’s true, but I always appreciate feedback like yours. I’m all for my readers pushing me to deliver better work.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Simple and yet effective,this article is as effective as Dan John’s crisp yet great workouts. This minimalist approach is really mind blowing and the researchers in the field of brain and cognition also bolster the simple is effective. Thanks a lot for sharing such a great article.

  8. A couple of strategies that work for me…

    1. If, say, I’m making a sandwich for lunch at home, I put all the ingredients away before I start eating. That greatly reduces the temptation to make a second sandwich after I’ve eaten the first.

    2. If I still desire more food, I go and brush my teeth and rinse with Listerine for a full two minutes. That pretty much clears my palate and removes the lingering desire for more food.

Leave a comment Share your knowledge and experience.