Earlier in my life, I had a roommate named Todd. One day, Todd told me that he wanted to get healthier. The following Sunday night, he bought some celery sticks at the supermarket. He placed them in our refrigerator when he got home. His plan was to snack on the sticks throughout the week. On Friday, he threw the unopened bag in the garbage.
Many people, like Todd, have an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to nutrition. With this mindset, there are only two kinds of food:
- Healthy but repulsive (like raw vegetables)
- Unhealthy but delicious (like fried foods)
In reality, there are four kinds of food. They are depicted visually in what I refer to as The Fuel Quadrant.
“Useless” foods are unpleasant and provide little or no nutritional value. Doritos fall into this category for me, since they provide few nutrients, and they taste terrible to me. If you like Doritos, however, they would be a “dangerous” food for you. “Dangerous” foods are enjoyable but provide little or no value. Ice cream falls into the “dangerous” category for me.
“Unsustainable” foods provide a lot of nutritional value, but are unpleasant or repulsive. Raw celery fell into this category for my former roommate Todd. Raw sardines fall into this category for me. While loaded with nutrients, raw sardines gross me out. “Powerful” foods pack a strong nutritional punch and taste great. Oven-roasted vegetables fall into this category for me.
Powerful = Sustainable
If you want to improve your eating habits, you do not need to eliminate all of the “dangerous” foods that you enjoy. For example, if you love ice cream, you do not need to eliminate it from your diet altogether. You can enjoy it guilt-free, as long as it is an occasional indulgence and the bulk of your calories come from natural, nutrient-dense products.
In addition, you don’t need to torture yourself with “unsustainable” foods. You can either avoid them altogether, or you can find ways to make them more enjoyable, so that they become “powerful” (sustainable). For example, if you are grossed-out by raw sardines, you can avoid them completely (what I do) and focus on eating other healthy foods that you find more palatable. You can also take foods that are “unsustainable” for you and make them “powerful” by adding healthy, natural flavor to improve the taste.
For example, if raw vegetables are an “unsustainable” food for you (like they are for me), there are many ways to turn them into a “powerful” (healthy and delicious) food. Here are three examples:
- Sautee with natural flavor: Cook vegetables in a pot or pan with a tablespoon of olive oil and natural flavor like garlic, chopped onion, or a spice (i.e. cumin). This works well for green leafy vegetables like spinach or kale.
- Season and roast: Chop and toss vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then roast them in the oven. This works well for firmer vegetables, like broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash.
- Hide: Rather than eating vegetables on the side, you could also hide them in a stew or in a fruit smoothie. Broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, carrots, and tomatoes work well in stews. Spinach and kale (raw or frozen) work well in smoothies.
I don’t think I consumed more than 1 pound of vegetables (in total) during my four years in college. However, these days, I generally consume 1-2 pounds of vegetables every day. This is only possible because I don’t torture myself by trying to eat them raw, which would be “unsustainable” for me. Instead, I turn vegetables into “powerful” (healthy and delicious) foods by using the cooking strategies above, among others. As a result, I genuinely enjoy eating vegetables now. No willpower is required.
The less you enjoy what you eat, how you exercise, etc., the less likely you will stick with it. If you’ve been having trouble forming stronger eating habits, you might be trying to “will” yourself to eat “unsustainable” foods. Don’t try to have “more willpower.” Ask yourself how you can make healthy foods taste better.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Earlier in his career, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.