In a past life, you ate like a normal person.
You ate what tasted good and what was available. You weren’t a pig, and your diet was still pretty healthy, but you weren’t strict about what you ate.
As time went on, you began to become more careful. Maybe you had some health problems and decided to change your diet. Maybe you became an athlete or got into bodybuilding or modeling. Maybe you’ve always been a little obsessive, like me.
You became more and more focused on what you ate. You started cutting out foods one by one. You only ate foods at certain times. As a result, you felt empowered, in control, and healthier.
Then as the months or years went by, your diet got old. You got tired of eating chicken breasts and carrots every day. Now, you can’t imagine going back to how you ate when you were a kid, but your current diet is also driving you nuts.
You’re ready for a change. You’re ready to have the freedom and comfort around food that you did when you were younger, with more structure and control so you can reach your aesthetic and athletic goals.
You want to put your diet on autopilot while staying healthy and lean.
Answer These 3 Questions to Create a Healthy Diet You Can Maintain
Most of the anxiety people face around eating is caused because they don’t know the answers to these three questions:
- What am I going to eat?
- How much am I going to eat?
- When or how often am I going to eat?
Let’s answer them.
1. Decide what you’re going to eat.
Most people eat because the food is tasty, convenient, in sight, or smells good. That’s also part of why many people are overweight.1
You aren’t like that. You care about your health and body composition. Your problem is that you always second guess your food choices. You always feel that you’re eating something that’s bad for you.
When you get tired of obsessing about food, you either continue with your current behaviors, making yourself even more unhappy, or say “fuck it” and kill a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I’ve done both, and it’s a frustrating cycle.
Solve that problem by sticking to the principles in this article.
Eat at least 80% of your calories from minimally processed, whole, nutrient dense plants and animals. Most research indicates that’s a healthy and sustainable way to live.
Feel free to add a few guidelines to keep yourself on track.
For instance, Nutella is kryptonite to my self control. I don’t keep it in my apartment because I can easily murder a jar in a day or two.
I also almost never eat fast food. I don’t think most fast food tastes very good, it’s easy to overeat, and it’s more expensive than cooking at home.
I could buy a jar of Nutella, and force myself not to eat too much, but I’d rather put my self control toward other things. Willpower is a limited resource,2 and you should budget it carefully.
If you need to, think of a few guidelines that you can use to keep yourself on track while investing as little willpower as possible. Here are a few that I use:
- I don’t keep overly tempting foods in the house (damn you, Nutella).
- I prepare around 90-95% of what I eat from scratch.
- I don’t drink soda.
Now that you know what you’re going to eat, decide how much you’re going to eat.
2. Decide how much you’re going to eat.
Even if you’re eating a healthy diet, it’s easy to gain fat if you eat too much.
Everyone who hasn’t lost weight on a paleo diet is nodding their head right now.
Since you’re an informed dieter, you probably know which foods have more calories than others. You don’t need to weigh every piece of food to the gram.
Calorie counting and weighing your food can be extremely useful in the short-term, but neither is generally sustainable in the long-term. At least if you want to be a sane person with friends, relationships, hobbies, and a life.
So how do you decide how much to eat without a scale?
Eat until you’re satisfied. Then stop.
Not until you’re full or stuffed, but just until you’re no longer hungry. Yes, you’ve heard this a hundred times before. That’s because it works.
Just like creating a budget, most everyone knows this is a good idea, but they don’t do it.
There are a few of you out there who probably still get hungry even if you’re eating till satiety. You probably fall into one of these two categories:
You’re trying to get leaner than most sane people, in which case you probably won’t feel satisfied from normal meals.
You’re eating mostly unfilling and high-calorie foods.
Even then, however, you can still feel hungrier than you should if you’re stressed,3,4 sleep deprived,5,6 eating while distracted,1 and making other silly mistakes.
If you eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, minimize your stress levels, and generally take care of yourself, you can usually eat until satiety and stay fairly lean.
3. Decide when or how often you’re going to eat.
For a long time, I had so much anxiety thinking about when I should eat that I avoided it till the last part of the day.
I’d have nothing more than an apple until about seven or eight at night. Then I’d let myself eat for an hour before I could go to bed and avoid the “problem” of eating for another 23 hours the next day.
This kind of behavior also nearly killed me. Not recommended.
On the other hand, some research indicates that one of the reasons people are gaining weight is because they are eating more often, not just more at each meal.7 That’s probably not your biggest problem, but if you’ve been doing what many (uninformed) nutrition experts recommend, and making yourself eat five or six meals a day, you know that can be exhausting too.
My “starve yourself all day” approach doesn’t work, and neither does grazing for most people.
Starting with 3-4 meals per day is a good idea for several reasons:
- It’s simple and easy to plan.
- It’s what most people do, which makes it easy to coordinate your diet with your social life.
- It means you can eat meals that are large enough to keep you satisfied, but not so big that you’re stuffed. (I always felt like a beached whale after my 23 hour fasts, despite only eating 800-1,000 calories per day).
If you don’t like eating 3-4 times per day, then you can always try another approach. Meal frequency really doesn’t matter, but this is a good starting place.
Eating a healthy, enjoyable diet shouldn’t be so hard.
It should be fun, relatively easy, and socially accommodating.
You probably got excited when you learned how some foods are toxic, why other foods will help you live longer and lose fat, and how nutrient timing is the secret to fat loss and muscle gain.
Then you realize there’s more to life than playing with your digital scale and reading weird sensationalist health blogs. You decide you’d rather spend your time and energy on having fun and improving yourself. You also realize that most of the stuff you used to believe, is pure crap.
You might be thinking “this is beginner stuff, I know what I’m doing.”
Do you really?
If you’re taking any fat loss supplements, spending any time reading about why you should be eating one food over another, or counting calories while eating tons of junk food, you haven’t mastered the basics in this article. It’s like someone calling themselves an astronaut when they don’t know how to fly a toy plane.
You’re wasting your time on stuff that doesn’t matter, and ignoring the things that do.
I’m as guilty as you. I love to obsess over details before mastering the basics, but it’s something we both need to change.
This is the diet that will help you stop thinking about food, and start living the rest of your life. So get to it.
1. Wansink B. From mindless eating to mindlessly eating better. Physiol Behav. 2010;100(5):454–463. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2010.05.003.
2. Baumeister RF, Vohs KD, Tice DM. The Strength Model of Self-Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2007;16:351–355.
3. Weinstein SE, Shide DJ, Rolls BJ. Changes in food intake in response to stress in men and women: psychological factors. Appetite. 1997;28(1):7–18. doi:10.1006/appe.1996.0056.
4. Rutters F, Nieuwenhuizen AG, Lemmens SGT, Born JM, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Acute stress-related changes in eating in the absence of hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2009;17(1):72–77. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.493.
5. Brondel L, Romer MA, Nougues PM, Touyarou P, Davenne D. Acute partial sleep deprivation increases food intake in healthy men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(6):1550–1559. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28523.
6. St-Onge M-P. The role of sleep duration in the regulation of energy balance: effects on energy intakes and expenditure. J Clin Sleep Med. 2013;9(1):73–80. doi:10.5664/jcsm.2348.
7. Duffey KJ, Popkin BM. Energy density, portion size, and eating occasions: contributions to increased energy intake in the United States, 1977-2006. Duffey KJ, Popkin BM, eds. PLoS Med. 2011;8(6):e1001050. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001050.s001.