Healthy Dietary Habits

We’re coming to the end of January, and a lot of my friends have made resolutions to lose weight in the coming year. I had started a blog post a long while ago about how to maintain a healthy weight, but I never put it up for a variety of reasons, primarily because I’m not a dietician or nutritionist and so was skeptical that people would find value in what I have to say. What I am, however, is a logic-based research nut who’s managed to maintain a very nice body at the age of 43, even after giving birth to two healthy-sized babies who are now seven and eleven, and I’ve decided (with the encouragement of John Scalzi–thanks, John) to post this anyway. I hope that people find it useful.

These aren’t rules about calories or about what you can’t eat. This is not a diet. (And it’s not about exercise, which is also important but would be a whole different blog post.) It’s nothing more than a set of healthy dietary habits to help you listen to your body but avoid being ruled by it. I could probably go on about any one of these habits for pages, but I’ll try to keep my comments about them brief for now.

My first bits of advice are especially applicable to anyone who works at home or sits at a desk all day.

Never bring more than a handful of food to your desk.
This is really a very big deal, and it’s not hard to implement. You should never keep food at your desk, and you should not bring more than a single handful of food to your desk at once to eat immediately. Even if you are certain you’re going to eat three handfuls of food, bring only one to your desk. If you want another, get up and get it. Even if the food is only a few steps away, the act of having to get up will help you realize whether you’re truly hungry, because at some point you’re going to decide that you’re just not hungry enough to get up and get yet another handful. If you have an entire bowl or bag of food in front of you, you can eat unthinkingly, and in order to maintain a healthy weight, you must eliminate unthinking eating.

Always keep a large glass of water at your desk.
Even if you are fond of zero-calorie sodas, you need to focus on drinking water instead. Artificial sweeteners have been proven to promote weight gain by making you more hungry, and your body needs water. The way to increase your water intake is not to make yourself force it down as though it were medicine, but to make water the most convenient drink available. Just as you should have no food at your desk, the only beverage at your desk should be a large glass of water. This does not preclude you from getting up and having a small glass of something else if you prefer; just be careful with liquids, because there’s evidence that your body doesn’t achieve satiety from the calories in them in the same way that it does calories from food.

Exercise restraint at the grocery store, where it’s easiest.
Junk food should be something you buy occasionally, as a treat, and not every time you visit the grocery store. Once it’s in the house, it is far too easy to eat, and much harder to say no to. Neither you nor your kids nor your significant other need junk food in order to make you healthy or happy. If a significant other insists on keeping junk in the house, they need to buy it on their own, and you need to treat it as theirs only: a roommate’s food that you don’t touch.

Buy healthy snacks and make sure they are convenient to eat.
Part of the problem with junk food is that it is so damned handy–it’s very little work to grab a bag of chips if you’re hungry. You have to make sure that the healthy foods you buy can compete with junk food for convenience, whether through choosing convenient items like cheese sticks and yogurt and easy-to-peel tangerines or by taking the time to put the food in easy-access form when you get home from shopping. If you like melons, for instance, be sure to peel them and cut them up into cubes when you get home, so that they’re ready to eat when you are. The most convenient snacks in your home should also be the healthiest.

Junk food you do have in the house should be out of sight, and any food in plain view should be healthy.
If you see a food you like, you are likely to want to eat it, even when you’re not particularly hungry. Having your favorite but unhealthy snacks is plain view is going to cause you to eat more of them: You see it; it looks good; you want it. Keep junk food out of sight, and any food that you see as you walk into your kitchen should be good for you.

If you eat dinner at a restaurant, save enough for your lunch the next day.
It’s a rare American restaurant that doesn’t serve dinner portions large enough to get both a lunch and dinner from. When you eat dinner out, you should save enough food on your plate to take home for your lunch the next day, thereby extending the enjoyable meal. If you are still hungry when you’ve eaten your dinner portion, get a dessert to share with the table!

Learn to listen to your body.
Eat when you are hungry, and stop eating when you are not hungry anymore. This sounds so simple, and it’s so important, and yet it is the one issue that people have the most trouble with. You should not let yourself be hungry, but you should also not try to get “full”–the goal is simply to not be hungry anymore. If you eat a few handfuls of food and find that you’re hungry again half an hour later, then eat another handful of food, keeping in mind that your food choices can be balanced through the day and don’t have to be balanced all in a single big meal. If you eat so much that you have the physical sensation that you shouldn’t eat anymore, then you’ve overeaten. Eating small, nutritious meals or snacks keeps your metabolism revved up, and you’ll feel better keeping yourself on an even keel.

Get over the notion that not finishing food means you’re wasting it.

When you learn to listen to your body about when it’s had enough, you will find that you are often leaving food on your plate. Resist eating that last bit of food, whether it’s one bite or twenty. If you can’t save the food in the fridge for later, you absolutely must realize that putting it into your body when you don’t need it is far more of a waste than throwing it down the garbage disposal. Putting excess food in the disposal doesn’t hurt anything, but putting it into your body causes it to turn into fat and does not in any way accomplish anything positive. The money has already been spent; putting the food to a negative use is worse than throwing it away, and even the calories in that one extra bite add up over years.

I hope this is helpful. In essence, you can still have food that you love; just form habits that help you not eat too much of it.

34 thoughts on “Healthy Dietary Habits”

  1. Great advice! A lot of it I already know–whether or not I do it. But the concept of only taking a handful of food to your desk is new to me–and definitely my pitfall. ::eyes the box of snacks tucked under her desk:: I think I’ll definitely start implementing that one. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Oh–I wanted to add a quick tip if I may. With eating out, I often ask for a to-go box at the start of my meal, and put away my lunch portion before I start eating. Out of sight, out of mind, and off my thighs!

  3. @Deanna – Thanks for this, good advice I should start keeping in mind.

    @Kimberly – That last bit is a great idea. My girlfriend wants us to start pringin our own storage boxes when we go out to save using the disposable ones. It would never have occured to me to use them early on to set aside our lunch protions.

  4. Good advice. I would add one other tip to the part about grocery shopping: Don’t shop on an empty stomach. Go to the store right after lunch or dinner. Shopping while you’re hungry can lead to buying a lot of junky, sugary food.

  5. Excellent point about not feeling guilty about leftover food :). This used to be a problem of mine when it was too little to save, but felt like too much to throw away–very helpful reasoning and advice! Thank you!

  6. Absolutely solid advice, and thanks for sharing it. I followed very similar guidelines (along with regular weight training and charting my food/calorie intake) to go from a fat 240 to a less fat, but more muscular, 216. I’ve got much more work to do before hitting my weight goal, but the basic pattern is solid yet flexible. If I meet friends for dinner or eat with the parents once a week, it won’t derail the works.

    I found that minimizing the total amount of in-house “problem” food (i.e., anything I’ll just plow through—I’m looking at you, Doritos!), and using a digital food scale to measure out portions (nuts, yogurt, cottage cheese, whole-grain cereals), has helped keep me on track—in the latter case, especially for things I’d be tempted to measure with a handful or nosh on over the course of a day. I freelance at home, so the company cafeteria is 10 steps away and unsupervised. And when it comes to handfuls, somehow my hands are a lot bigger when they’re full of almonds versus broccoli or lettuce.

  7. Funny, I already do all of these things. I remember once, as a teenager, I was having lunch with my mom and I put down the last three bites of my burger. She asked if I were going to finish it, and I just said that, no, I wasn’t because I was already full.

    It blew her mind. It’s never seemed weird to me. I’d much rather toss the last few bites than feel gross by shoving them down.

    I also always prefer healthy snacks. If I eat too many carrots, I don’t feel nearly as gross as I might with chips or something. Also, no hfcs or hydrogenated oils in my diet at all. That stuff is poison.

    Now, if only pigs and beer weren’t so delicious, I would have absolutely no temptation in my life at all. From food, at least.

  8. Everyone of those tips is accurate. I took off 70 pounds a few years ago by eating better and exercising more. I was always full and I was never on a diet. I just made sure what I put in my body was good for me (I even had an occasional snack)

  9. Another tip on shopping: make a list and stick to it. No impulse buying – that’s usually junky snacks. Also as you approach my age, the list will do away with the need to go back for something vital you forgot.

    I know this blog is about healthy diet, not exercise, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw in a plug for adding exercise. I cleaned up my diet and saw no weight loss. Added in some regular exercise and lost 18 lbs in 4 or 5 months. And 7 months later, it’s still off.

  10. Thanks for the advice.

    Some of this I knew and some I didn’t


    Scalzi is going to die…..

    From Coke Zero withdrawl…..


  11. I have a suggestion for the ‘not enough left to save’ – if it is vegetables or meat (or maybe even something else, but up to you after you read the rest), put it in the fridge anyway and after two or three days of collecting small portions, make fried rice tossing in all the little leftover pieces. My fried rice is different every time I make it, but I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed. You don’t have to make a huge batch either – depends on how much you’ve collected. You can make just enough for one person for a side dish at lunch or you can make enough for a full meal for your family.

  12. All great advice, though the plan to “stop eating when you are not hungry anymore” only works if you eat slowly. On Sunday Scalzi and Krissy and I were just counseling Athena, who complained that she was uncomfortably full after her last meal, regarding how long it takes for food to hit your stomach and then let you know you shouldn’t eat any more. Part of the reason why subdividing or portioning your food before you start eating it (as per the suggestion to get a box at the same time as you get your food at a restaurant) can be so important is because there is that time delay.

    People aren’t so good at following processes where there’s a time delay between action and feedback. That’s part of why it can be so hard to use an electric stove – you turn it on, and later it gets red, after it’s already hot. :)

    I had hypoglycemia hit me with a vengeance in college, at a time when I always went 5 hours between meals (per the student meal plan) and by that time my hands were shaking and I was in distress. I gained a lot of weight by eating until I stopped shaking. Now I rarely get in that situation because I manage it much better with supplements and eating every couple hours, but I still handle it completely differently if it happens – I know that a couple of crackers with peanut butter or a small handful of nuts and dried fruit is sufficent to curb the shaking, I just have to wait 15 minutes. It was a hard lesson to learn especially in the face of other people who are concerned that I haven’t eaten enough to be well. But now that I know it I feel much better and more in control.

    Your suggestion of only taking a handful of food to your desk at a time should help in a similar way. When you have a snack, eat something and then wait a bit to see if you want more or if you’re good with what you’ve had.

  13. My personal strategy is to buy these disgusting granola bars that I hate whenever they’re on sale. Eating one makes me feel ill, and eating two can ruin my day. They’re the only food I keep at my desk.

    If I decide I really am that hungry, I immediately regret it. It’s nearly annihilated my urge to snack at the computer. (I recognize that ymmv on this tactic.) :P

  14. Here via the esteemed Mr. Scalzi. :)

    This is the sort of good sense that should be common and isn’t. Lots of “I should’ve thought of that” moments in reading through it.

    Those of us of an age to have grown up exhorted to “join the clean plate club” especially need to see the advice about letting the last few bites go and why in specific terms. Thank you.

  15. Great advice – not too many things to remember, and all easy to do.

    I lost several pounds pretty easily by just paying attention to portions – definitely the “eat only half” thing at restaurants, but also weighing portions so I could count calories for a couple of weeks. For a numbers geek like me, this was FUN – but it also clued me in to a variant of the “you don’t have to finish it” guideline: that’s true of the container of food, too. For example, I like granola for breakfast. When I started weighing the granola to make sure I knew how many calories I was eating, I noticed I was eating about twice what the box calls a serving – so now, I always use a measuring cup to make sure I’m not overdoing it. This has the cool side effect of keeping me from looking at what’s left in the bag, thinking, “Oh, that’s not much left – I’ll just finish it off,” and promptly adding another hundred calories to my breakfast. Now, I just leave it in the bag and eat it the next day. Those invisible calories really add up.

  16. Another thing to do with little bits of veggie and/or meat is to pour them into a container and freeze. Keep adding, in layers, and then you have the ingredients for soup. If you use a sloped container, then you can loosen it and slice off (so you get some of each layer) just enough for one serving.

  17. The concept of leaving food on the plate is total and utter anathema to me, and I actually do ask for a box even if there are only two bites left. But I’m more of a continuous slow graze kind of eater, so reheating two bites of something as a snack is perfectly normal to me too.

    That said, I really like some of the alternate ideas other people have mentioned – making fried rice, saving in the freezer for soup, etc. I’m all for not wasting food. :)

    Hypoglycemia: I’ve found that the absolutely best cure is a Halloween-sized Snickers bar. Something about the combination of sugars and peanuts just hits the spot perfectly. (But I’ve long since left situations where I’m forced to eat according to other people’s schedules, and hypoglycemia hasn’t been a major problem for almost a decade.)

  18. Thank you all for the great suggestions. There are really some great ones here, both for leftover food and for dietary tips. I appreciate all of you stopping by and taking the time to add in your thanks or opinions.

  19. Thanks for this. As a child of parents who grew up just after the Depression, I would like to have this: “putting it into your body when you don’t need it is far more of a waste than throwing it down the garbage disposal”

    …cross-stitched, framed, and hung above the dining room table.

  20. Excellent advice! Thanks to you and Scalzi for spreading the word.
    Flavored seltzer water is one of my saviors. I keep a one liter bottle next to my desk and chug it all day. Water + the feel of soda + zero calories or sweeteners= win!

  21. Great stuff Deanna. These ideas make sense whether you are overweight or not (weight not being the only indicator of eating in a healthy fashion).

    Another thought that might be helpful: What qualifies as junk food? There are certainly some things that are generally accepted as junk food (chips, soda, candy, etc.), but expanding that definition to include more foods and drinks will make a big difference.

    For example, it is most certainly beneficial to consider alcohol to be a junk food and treat it as such (limiting quantity, not always having it the house, consuming small portions, etc.).

  22. For a while I had a “snack bowl”— a little bowl that I used for portioning out snacks. It’s a bit better than the handful measurement because it makes you feel grownup to be eating your snack from a proper serving dish rather than your hand. (I don’t use it right now because it’s pottery and I have a toddler— and half of what I snack on goes to him anyway.)

    On that note, Food Network’s Food Detectives had a bit where they did a test to see whether plate size at a buffet changed how much you ate. It appears that you do perceive empty plate space as a smaller meal, so you try to fill up your plate. And then you eat it. So unless you’re a culinary student with beautiful presentations, try getting a smaller set of dishes so that you unconsciously serve yourself less food.

  23. Joe: Yeah, I’m lucky to have been brought up without the notion of “wasting” food. I know it’s difficult for a lot of folks.

    Elizabeth: I love sparkling water, too. I always enjoy when I remember to keep it around.

    Robert: I think it does make sense to consider alcohol a junk food–you certainly have to plan for the extra calories if you want it!

    B. Burbin: I’ve seen the study about plate size too. I think it’s just extraordinarily difficult for many people to realize when they’ve had enough, because so many have been taught to eat past that point.

  24. Oh my gosh, thank you. I needed this now… so easy to bring a whole bag of cheeze puffs to my computer. By the time I get my work finished, they’re gone. And half the time I don’t even realize I’m eating!

  25. Very good advice, but I do have to disagree with “the only beverage at your desk should be a large glass of water.” I drink tea — plain, no milk, no sugar, no lemon — all day long, switching to decaf or herbal between 11 and 12. It adds no calories, so I frankly see no reason to change my habit.

  26. I started using my “salad” plates to eat meals off of a couple years ago — since as a hypoglycemic I snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon, I need less at traditional mealtimes.

    Now when I face a “normal” sized dinner plate loaded with food I have a hard time imagining eating that much. My definitions of portion size have just completely changed. I can attest that it really can alter your outlook on food.

    Even when I try to put an appropriate amount of food on a large plate, though, I often still end up taking too much and having to leave some behind. It’s hard not to feel like you’re supposed to fill the plate. And I’m one of those people who were so sternly taught to take all you want, but eat all you take! It really is hard to move past that.

  27. And for those who like rules and things there’s this from someone who is about the same age as Deanna –

    Personally I pretty much follow the Deanna guidelines regarding food at the computer (I don’t keep it here) and water (always here except when the mug is full of coffee instead).

    A couple of things that I find important.
    1. Eat breakfast. If you have to skip a meal skip ones later in the day.
    2. Get into a routine about when you eat and avoid casual snacking. I do the British afternoon tea and a biscuit thing to break up the time between lunch and dinner but other than that I don’t snack. What I do sometimes do is chew some Xylitol chewing gum which has practically no calories and which helps make the water a bit nicer to drink.

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