Create a Helpful Food Environment9 minute read

In nutrition by Steven Kornweiss, MDLeave a Comment

We all care about our health. We want to live long, healthy, energetic, and productive lives. We know that what we eat has a major impact on our health and well-being. Therefore, it’s obvious that if we know which foods are good for us and which are bad for us, we’ll reliably eat those that are good and avoid those that are bad. Yet, almost none of us do this to the extent that we wish, myself included. This can be remedied with the right practices.

Make hard decisions once.

It’s a lot easier to stick to proper nutrition when our environment is set up for success. Instead of being faced with hard decisions every day to resist tempting foods, we can make one good decision to surround ourselves only with the foods we wish we would eat more often. Dr. Stephen Guyenet explains the problem in his book “The Hungry Brain.” He says, "the conflict between the conscious and nonconscious brain explains why we overeat even though we don’t want to. Although we try to control our behavior using the conscious parts of our brains, the nonconscious parts work to undermine our good intentions."

According to Guyenet, the two main characteristics that make foods rewarding are palatability and variety.

  • Palatability is the degree to which a food is rewarding. The most palatable foods are energy dense (i.e. high in calorie) and complex and intense in flavor and texture. Consider a moderately palatable food like cheddar cheese versus hyper-palatable crunchy flamin’ hot Cheetos. For another example, consider cream cheese versus cheese cake with chocolate sauce.

  • Variety refers to the different foods in our diet.

Guyenet’s book catalogs many experiments that demonstrate the neuro-chemistry that causes people to eat unhealthful foods in excessive amounts. The studies unsurprisingly indicate that palatability and variety are positively correlated with how much we eat.

When various palatable foods are readily available, we will likely eat more.

According to Guyenet, in the 1970s, a researcher named Sclafani discovered the “cafeteria diet.” The diet was composed of “Froot Loops, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chip cookies, salami, cheese, bananas, marshmallows, milk chocolate, and peanut butter.” He used the "cafeteria diet" to quickly fatten his lab rats so that he could use them to study obesity. The rats became obese within weeks while eating this diet, which was a great improvement over the months it took to fatten them using the standard method of adding fat to their chow.

In the 1990s, an obesity researcher named Eric Ravussin studied the “cafeteria diet” in humans and found similar results. The subjects gained an average of five pounds in one week. Participants spent a week in a metabolic ward where their food supply was limited to vending machines filled with “french toast and sausages with syrup, chicken pot pie, chocolate-vanilla swirl Jell-O pudding, cheesecake, nacho cheese Doritos, M&M’s, Shasta cola, and a few apples.” In reality, there were several other options as well, but this gives you a good idea of the selection.

Ten men were monitored in the metabolic ward and obtained their entire diet from these machines for seven days. On average, they each gained five pounds by eating nearly twice as much as they needed to maintain a stable weight. There were at least two problems with this study: i) the study diet was relatively protein-poor which makes it unsatiating in addition to hyper-rewarding and ii) the participants were in a metabolic ward without much else to do other than eat. Despite these problematic aspects of the study, I think it is still clear that if we’re surrounded by a variety of hyper-palatable foods similar to those from the study, we might consume more energy (calories) than we intend.

When palatability and variety are reduced, we will likely eat less.

Guyenet demonstrates this point vividly in his presentation of an experiment that was carried out in October of 1965 in which men and women volunteered to undergo formula feeding. The study was carried out in a metabolic ward of a hospital. Participants were able to obtain food by pressing a button that delivered 1.5 teaspoons of liquid formula through a straw. The food was a nutritionally complete formula but devoid of flavor and aroma. The participants were allowed to "eat" as much or as little as they wanted of the formula, but were allowed no other food.

Two lean subjects were studied first. These two drank just enough formula to maintain body weight; no more, and no less. Two subjects who had large fat stores (each weighing roughly 400 pounds), were also studied. The male subject consumed a mere 275 calories on the first day. He remained in the study for seventy days, during which time he lost seventy pounds. Yes, he lost a pound every single day. After the study, he was instructed to continue limiting his diet to 400 calories per day of the liquid formula. Over the course of the next six months, he lost an additional 130 pounds. His total weight lost was 200 pounds or 50% of his starting weight. The female subject consumed only 144 calories on her first day, and ended up losing twenty-three pounds over a twelve day time period; she lost two pounds per day! The researchers reported that these patients never complained of hunger during their period of weight loss.

This study has several idiosyncrasies that make it hard to apply directly to real-world conditions. However, I think it’s still a good illustration that once food is reduced to pure nutrition devoid of palatability and variability, there is no motivation to eat other than for nutritional requirements. As a result, the hunger mechanism causes lean subjects to eat enough to maintain their weight, and causes those with excess weight to eat much less.

Creating a favorable food environment

It can be hard to make good decisions consistently when we’re surrounded by bad alternatives. But, using the knowledge given to us by Guyenet and the research he presents, we can set up our environments to support our long-term nutrition goals. Instead of surrounding ourselves with gustatory mines and culinary booby-traps, we can surround ourselves with nutrient-dense whole foods. Here is what Guyenet recommends:

First, get rid of all tempting, calorie-dense foods that are easy to grab and eat in your home and work environment—particularly those that are readily visible on counters and tables. This includes things like chips and cookies but also some relatively healthy items like salted nuts. Get rid of the ice cream in your freezer. Don’t give yourself the option to eat these foods, and you’ll find that you crave them less.

Second, reduce your exposure to food cues in general. It’s possible to overeat even healthy foods, so don’t tempt yourself too much. Limit the amount of visible food in your personal food environment at home and at work, particularly snack foods that are easy to grab and eat. Minimize your exposure to food advertising on television and elsewhere if you can.

Third, create effort barriers to eating. These barriers don’t have to be large to be effective. For example, if you have to peel an orange to eat it, you probably won’t go for it unless you’re genuinely hungry. The same goes for nuts in their shells. Perhaps the most stringent effort barrier is to limit the food in your kitchen to items you’d have to cook or reheat to eat.

Is this approach too extreme?

This may sound drastic at first, but consider our approach to other challenging tasks. For example, when I set out to write this newsletter every two weeks, I clean my office leaving only pencil, paper, my computer, and research materials on my desk. I carve out several hours during which I won’t check email, take phone calls, or talk to anyone in my house or office. I have a system for taking notes, thinking on paper, outlining, drafting, and editing. I have to do all of these things before I even start writing. I need to set up my environment and use a process that facilitates writing, a task which requires a lot of planning, thinking, and focus, and from which I am easily distracted.

It’s no different with nutrition. Maintaining proper nutrition nearly every day for an entire lifetime is not an easy task, even for the most disciplined people. There are many distractions and alternatives, and it does take some time and planning. Just like with writing, or any challenging task, it really helps to set up our environment to help us stay focused on what matters and eliminate things that don’t. To this end, I periodically do a kitchen and pantry purge. In other words, I set up my food environment to facilitate good nutrition. Sometimes I hesitate before I toss (or give away) certain foods, but I never miss them once they’re gone. When I’m done with a kitchen and pantry purge, I always feel a sense of freedom and purpose, and I’m far more successful with my nutrition plans as a result.

It’s possible to go too far.

Not everyone has a problem with controlling their diet. In fact, I know people who don’t have any difficulty controlling their nutrition, and others who maintain strict and purposeful control over everything they eat. Sometimes, people can go too far and become obsessed with controlling their diet. In fact, being overly obsessed with healthy eating is now considered to be an eating disorder of its own; it’s called "orthorexia." According to nationaleatingdisorders.org, "the term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food we eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being." Attending to nutrition becomes a disorder when it causes people harm. For example, a person with orthorexia may spend hours becoming anxious about a future meal over which they may not have control.

Most people are somewhere in between orthorexia and a total lack of control. I try to avoid these extremes by understanding that good nutrition doesn’t mean having absolute control over every bite of food. Instead, it means aligning my nutrition with my values. Since I value my health above many if not all other things, my nutrition plan, and thus my food environment, should support my health first and foremost. However, it should not interfere with other important values like productive and creative work, or enjoyable time with my family.

Even though the purpose of eating is primarily to obtain nutrition, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the amazing visual and sensory experiences created by culinary artists. Food can also be the center of traditions, social gatherings, and celebrations. If our food environment enables us to eat in a healthful manner most of the time, then when we have the opportunity to use food in a different context, it’s much more enjoyable to do so.

What to do if your kitchen and pantry purge leaves you without food?

For some people, following the ideas above might result in the elimination of nearly all food in the entire kitchen or pantry. So, what to eat? This is a personal decision that everyone will make for themselves. Nonetheless, I thought it might be helpful for some people to see what I eat.

Here’s the basic grocery list for our house:

  • Eggs from pastured chickens
  • Chicken thighs
  • Ground beef
  • Ground pork
  • Bacon
  • Steak
  • Beef or pork bones to make bone broth
  • Salmon
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Hot peppers for cooking
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Avocado
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Lemons
  • Whole wheat pita pockets
  • Bagels (I keep them in the freezer so they’re not readily available for eating)
  • Steel cut oats
  • Butter
  • Cream Cheese
  • Spices, Herbs, and Condiments
  • Dark chocolate

Other foods that we do keep in the house but which are rarely prepared and eaten:

  • pasta
  • dry roasted unsalted, or lightly salted nuts: almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans
  • baking ingredients with sugar alternatives like allulose and monk fruit

Snacks

  • Tanka Warrior Bars
  • Molk Protein

Pitfalls: the following are foods that are marketed as healthy but are almost always not as healthy as they might seem. They’re often quite energy dense and are made primarily from hyper-palatable and nutrient poor ingredients like flour, seed oils, sugars, syrups, and binders:

  • granola bars
  • granola
  • breakfast cereals
  • nut butters
  • dried fruit
  • trail mix

If you’re interested in the ideas in this article, I highly recommend Dr. Guyenet’s book. It’s a fascinating and practical exposition on the neuroscientific basis of hunger.

I’ve written a few other articles on nutrition, which you can find here:

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