Reader question: What are your top 5 rules for healthy eating/lifestyle?


What are your top 5 rules for healthy eating/lifestyle?

– Clueless in Clapham

I’m glad you asked. Here they are:

  • Minimize unplanned snacks
  • Minimize overeating at planned meals
  • Minimize processed foods at all times
  • Eat mostly during the day
  • Maximize activity


Rather than reiterate the scientific basis for these principles, I’ll discuss some of my personal experiences related to each of them.

Minimize unplanned snacks

This one is easy for me, and it should be easy for most people. The key is to establish a routine and stick to it. Once your body and brain become used to your routine, you will become hungry at your usual meal times, but almost never feel hungry or get food cravings outside of them.

I eat 4 meals per day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. Only very rarely (definitely less than once per week) do I eat anything outside of these meals.

I’m very aggressive (perhaps more than I need to be) about planning ahead to make sure that I can stick to this routine. For example, if I’m traveling for work and I’m unsure about where and when I’ll be able to get a good meal, I will pack my own. But part of the reason I do this has nothing to do with being healthy. I view every meal as an opportunity for enjoyment that I don’t not want to squander. I’d much rather put in a bit of effort to pack my own delicious meal than be stuck eating airplane food.

One final note on this principle: most people should be able to minimize unplanned snacks just by establishing a consistent routine. But if your local environment is full of temptations (e.g. the office candy bowl), you may also have to take measures to remove them.

Minimize overeating at planned meals

This is also a relatively easy one for me, but it does require a degree of diligence. The key is to begin each meal with the right amount of food (not too much, not too little) and to make sure that it would require significant effort to obtain more. If your eating patterns are erratic, it may not be obvious how much food is the right amount for any given meal. But once you establish a routine in which you consistently eat similar meals at similar times each day, it will be easy for you to learn through experience how big each of those meals should be.

If you are cooking for yourself, it’s easy to avoid overeating because you are in total control. The simplest approach is, of course, to prepare only enough for one meal. Or, if you are cooking enough for multiple meals, pack the leftovers before you start eating.

If you are eating out, things can be a bit trickier. First of all, if you are in an unfamiliar restaurant, you may be unsure of the portion sizes. In this case, you should err on the side of ordering too little, with the understanding that you can always order more if you’re still hungry (which, most times, you won’t be). Second of all, you may feel pressure to order more food than you actually need. This pressure may be internal (‘Oh, they’re going to think I’m a bad customer …’) or external (‘Is that it? We usually recommend that each person orders a starter and a main for themselves …’).

If you receive external pressure to over-order at a certain restaurant, just don’t go back. There is no shortage of restaurants serving excellent food where the staff don’t particularly care how much money you spend as long as you enjoy your meal. Once you’ve had several experiences eating out without any external pressure to over-order, your internal pressure to over-order will also subside.

There are also restaurants where even a single dish will be more food than you need. But you can always ask for a half-sized portion. Or ask for half of the meal to be packed for takeaway before the other half is brought to you.

Here’s a slightly embarrassing fact: when I was younger and eating out regularly in the US, I would routinely pour water over half of my food before I started eating the other half. If I were to be in this situation again today, I’m confident that I could find a less wasteful solution.

For me, the biggest risk of overeating comes when I’m invited for a meal at someone else’s home. If someone else is cooking, I usually feel some pressure (internal) to eat whatever is put in front of me. I don’t eat in other people’s homes very often (definitely less than once per week), so I don’t really worry about it. But if this is a problem that you face regularly, then you’ll have to find a sustainable solution.

Minimize processed foods at all times

This is the one I struggle with the most. Let’s face it – there are a lot of processed foods that taste really, really good. For some people, it may be easy to go a whole day without having any processed foods. I am not one of those people.

My solution is to try limit my processed foods to my afternoon snack. My breakfast never contains any processed foods (see this post). My lunch typically doesn’t either, though I do sometimes eat a sandwich or a wrap filled with unprocessed ingredients. And my dinners at home never contain any processed foods, though my restaurant dinners might.

My afternoon snack, however, is almost always processed with a significant amount of added sugar. Just to be clear: I am not saying that eating a piece of cake every afternoon is the key to healthy eating. I do it because I enjoy it and because I can get away with it. But I do also believe that it helps me to limit the amount of processed foods that I eat at other times. Because my pleasure system has learned that it will get its way each afternoon, it behaves itself the rest of the time.

Would I be able to limit my processed foods to one meal per day, or perhaps even fewer, without this rigid routine? Maybe. But I think it would be harder, because I would have to make a decision before every meal.

‘Should I eat something processed for lunch today? Well, let’s see, I had a healthy breakfast today. I had pasta for dinner last night, which isn’t great, but I didn’t have any snacks before or after dinner. I’m already planning to go out for dinner tonight though, so maybe I should have a light lunch. But pizza does sound really good right now …’

Maybe I’d be able to choose unprocessed foods most of the time, but I’m not so sure. If you want to avoid making bad eating decisions, then don’t put yourself in situations where you are forced to make decisions in real time.

If you give your pleasure system any indication that there is a chance of getting processed foods, your self-control system going to have a very difficult time overruling it to make the right decision. And if your self-control system does manage to win out the first time, it will become even harder to do it again the next time.

My eating routine doesn’t really require me to make any decisions about processed or unprocessed foods. For my main meals, I never even consider processed foods as an option, so I don’t have to decide not to eat them. Similarly, for my afternoon snack, I never eat unprocessed foods. Because I’ve found a sustainable routine that does not require me to make any decisions, I’ve removed the risk of making bad decisions.

Eat mostly during the day

This is another easy one. As with the first principle, you simply need to establish a routine, put in the effort to stick to it for a few weeks, and then it will become second nature. Once your body and brain learn that you never eat anything after dinner, you will stop feeling hungry and craving food after dinner. I honestly cannot remember the last time I felt hungry after dinner.

I think this is definitely one of the aspects of healthy eating where the discussion in the mainstream media has not yet caught up with the science (but see this recent article in the New York Times). The metabolic benefits of eating during the day to keep your behavior and your internal daily rhythms in sync can be quite profound, so it’s a shame that not everyone is taking advantage of them.

If you have trouble eating mostly during the day because you do shift work, or have some other kind of disruptive schedule, you need to think very seriously about your options. There is a lot of compelling evidence that shift work is unhealthy, so you should really try to avoid it if possible. If there is no alternative, then you should do everything you can minimize the amount of disruption that it causes.

One final note: as with the first principle, this one should more or less take care of itself once you establish a consistent routine. But if you’ve developed a particular habit of eating after dinner (e.g. you always have ice cream during ‘X Factor’), you’ll need to find a way to break it.

Maximize activity

I have no problem with this one, but I understand that it might be more difficult for some people. There are many advantages to being a white-collar worker in a car-based society, but there is also a big disadvantage to being inactive by default.

Activity is not just about burning calories. Our ancestors were always active and, as a result, many different chemical processes evolved in their bodies and brains that depend on the byproducts of activity. When we are inactive and don’t produce these byproducts, these chemical processes break down and we suffer as a result. (In a way, the problems that arise from inactivity are analogous to the problems caused by the effects of modern diets on our gut bacteria: we co-evolved with them, we’ve come to depend on them, and when we disrupt them there are serious consequences).

Everybody loves convenience, but we’ve reached the point where it’s become too much of a good thing. While we should be proud that we have progressed to a point where many people have the choice to do as much or as little activity as they would like, we also need to recognize that widespread inactivity is causing serious health problems.

When it comes to staying lean and healthy, convenience is very often the enemy. My solution to this problem is to live car-free. I spend, on average, at least one hour per day walking. Would it be more convenient to have a car? Of course. Do I sometimes think ‘Ugh, I don’t feel like walking today’? Of course (usually because of the weather).

But in imposing this inconvenience on myself, I have constructed a lifestyle where I no longer have to decide to be active. It just happens. No matter what, even if I never explicitly ‘exercise’, I will always be active enough to stay healthy.

I usually enjoy walking without any extra distraction, but, if you don’t, try listening to music, or audiobooks, or talk radio, or podcasts, or whatever you think you might enjoy. If you can find the right entertainment, you might even start craving your walks.

A unifying principle

You may have noticed that there is a common theme that unites all five of these principles: if you want to stay healthy in the modern world, you cannot just simply trust your instincts. Those instincts evolved in an environment where food was scarce and the energy derived from it was a precious commodity. The problem is that our environment has changed dramatically, but our instincts have not. They still encourage us to act as if we are preparing for a famine that will never come. The key to staying lean and healthy is to construct a lifestyle that will help you combat these instincts indirectly, rather than forcing yourself to deny them head-on every time they arise.