The 5 Habits of Highly Effective Eating

When it’s time to eat, the question we typically ask ourselves is “What would be the most logical choice that will better help me achieve my health, performance, and body composition goals?”  Riiiiight.  No, the question we ask ourselves when it’s time to eat is, “What do I feel like eating?”  Our decision is seldom based on logic but instead on emotion.

So many of our decisions are emotionally-driven.  Our emotions are a gift, but they often make it difficult to make wise decisions.  Although I value my emotions, I know I can’t always count on them to make the wisest decision, especially when it comes to my food choices.

I think it’s safe to assume that we can all recall an image of someone with an angel on one shoulder and a demon or the Devil on the other, representing the internal struggle of good versus evil, right versus wrong, or grilled chicken salad versus fish ‘n chips.

I’ve learned I can’t leave my decision making up to my emotions.  I have to have a strategy, system, or plan.  Regardless of how I’m feeling, I know if I stick to my plan, I can’t fail.  And more times than not, I come out on the other side [of the meal] “feeling” great!

One of the most important and practical strategies I use is following five simple habits.  These five habits, when I choose to practice them, help me in any and every food situation, whether I’m eating at home, someone else’s home, or at a restaurant.

Admittedly, there have been, and will be, situations when practicing all five habits seems impossible.  But even in the most seemingly impossible situations, you can always, ALWAYS practice at least one of them.

Habit #1: Eat slowly to 80% full

It seems so simple—too simple—but it works!  Regardless of what you eat, where you eat, when you eat, or with whom you eat, if you apply this habit, you can lose fat.  Ultimately, this habit develops awareness.  And awareness proceeds change . . . but only 100% of the time.

Perhaps it’s because of poor communication skills (sadly, I know a thing or two about that), but it takes at least 20 minutes for your stomach to let your brain know it’s full.  Eating slowly allows you to better measure fullness, helping you to eat less.

Keep it simple.  At your next meal:

  • Allow more time (5-10 additional minutes) to eat.
  • Sit down to eat.
  • Use smaller utensils.
  • Put down your utensil between bites.
  • Chew your food, enjoying the tastes and textures.
  • Take a drink of water between bites.
  • Eat without distractions, i.e., smartphone, TV, or newspaper.

Once you’ve begun eating slowly and your brain knows it’s nearing fullness, you can more easily eat to 80% full.  Note: Eating to 80% full is more of a concept than an absolute (“Am I at 74% full or 86%?!”).  Because of this, it takes some practice.

To give you an idea of what 80% full feels like, you know what stuffed is, right?  How about ravenous?  Shoot for somewhere in the middle.  Think of it not as being full but rather no longer hungry.  Could you eat more?  Sure.  But do you need to?  Prolly not.

At your next meal, stop eating sooner than usual.  Serve yourself a smaller portion than normal.  Order a smaller size (politely say, “No thank you, I’d like NOT to supersize that.”)

Please don’t discount this habit.  It is the single best habit to develop.  Even when faced with the most adverse eating situations, you can ALWAYS call upon this habit.

Habit #2: Eat a lean protein with each meal

Most diets, “good” or “bad”, share this in common: they emphasize protein.  Fact is, protein is a dietary superstar.

Wanna lose weight?  Eat protein!  Wanna build muscle?  Eat protein!  Rev your metabolism?  Protein!  Feel fuller sooner?  Protein!  Recover from training?  Protein, protein, and more protein!  There’s seemingly nothing it can’t do.

To eat a lean protein, though, you first need to know what it is.  Fortunately, due to industrialization, you no longer need to hunt, catch, or milk your protein sources, so getting them shouldn’t be a problem.  Here are some recommendations:

  • Lean meats such as ground beef, poultry, bison, and venison
  • Fish such as salmon, tuna, cod, roughy (which was originally called “slime head”, but they had a tough time moving product)
  • Eggs and egg whites
  • Dairy such as cottage cheese and Greek yogurt
  • Lentils, beans, tofu, and tempeh
  • Protein supplements
    • milk-based: whey, casein, and milk protein blends
    • plant-based: pea, hemp, and rice

Now that you’ve identified your prey, hold out your hand.  Eat one to two palm-sized servings.  Now, take your hand and high five yourself!

Habit #3: Eat colorful vegetables with each meal

If protein’s the superstar, veggies are its entourage.  Simply put, you won’t eat one without the other.  “Why”, your inner child asks?

Veggies contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, which reduce the effects of aging and all-cause mortality.  What does that mean for you?  Basically, you’ll be Deadpool . . . but without extraordinary swordsman and marksman skills.

Veggies also provide fiber.  Fiber’s good for gut health.  It helps control your energy levels and appetite by making you feel fuller longer.  It helps decrease your likelihood of cancer and heart disease.  (You know, things that’ll take you from your family sooner.)

That’s why.

To steal the tagline of one of my favorite childhood candies, “taste the rainbow”. Choose a variety of colorful veggies like:

  • Beets
  • Red, orange, yellow, and green peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Kale, spinach, and other dark leafy greens
  • Green beans
  • Eggplant
  • Purple cabbage

Eat a fist-sized serving or two (or more) at each meal.  Enjoy ‘em raw or cooked.

Focus on addition, not subtraction.  Eating more “good” stuff like veggies and lean protein will leave less room for the “bad” stuff . . . assuming you’re eating slowly to 80% full.

Habit #4: Make “smart carb” choices

Contrary to what others in the fitness and nutrition industry say, you don’t need to stop eating carbs (especially when you implement Habit #7).  What you may need to do is start eating smarter (and perhaps fewer) carbs.  “Smart carbs”, like veggies, are high in fiber and packed with vitamins and minerals.

Smart carbs are both the perfect and preferred source of energy.  Without adequate carbs, your body will break down your lean muscle for energy and your brain won’t be able to perform optimally, i.e., you’ll lose focus.  More lean muscle, energy, and focus?  Sounds like a trifecta to me.

Smart carbs include:

  • Fresh and frozen fruit
  • Potatoes, both white and sweet
  • Whole, minimally processed grains such as quinoa, brown and wild rice, slow-cooking oats, and sprouted grains

A serving is equivalent to a cupped hand.  Shoot for one or two.

Habit #5: Eat healthy fat with most meals

To improve your body, health, and performance, it’s important to get a good balance of healthy dietary fat.  (We’re done thinking dietary fat’s bad, right?!)

Healthy fat decreases inflammation and your risk of heart disease; helps you feel fuller sooner and longer, so you eat less; and increases your growth and sex hormones, which promotes muscle growth and fat loss.

Healthy fats include:

  • Olive, coconut, flax, and fish oils
  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pecans) and nut butters (almond, cashew, and natural peanut)
  • Seeds such as chia, flax, and sunflower
  • Avocado

Drop a spoonful of natural peanut butter in your oatmeal, throw some flaxseeds into a smoothie, or top your salad with olive oil.  Eat one or two thumb-sized servings of these and other healthy fats with most of your meals.

These are simple habits that can quickly and easily be stored to memory.  Even though they are simple and easily stored, you will still need to make the hard decision to implement them when deciding what to eat.  You might find it advantageous to commit them to paper.  Your emotional self will try, with much success, to have you forget them.

Following these five habits is a great way to learn to eat the right foods and in the right amounts.  It will help you control your calories without needing to count them.  It will help guide you in what and how to eat, regardless of your environment, whether on the road or in your home.