Diet Microhabits: 19 Small Steps to Improve Your Diet
Eating is an everyday activity that plays a crucial role in our health and well-being. If you eat 3 meals a day, snack at least once a day, and go out for pre-dinner drinks a few times a week, that’s more than 30 times you’re making choices on what goes into your body. Over the course of weeks, months, and years, these choices add up.
The following microhabits can help you gradually build a strong foundation for eating wholesome and healthy foods, staying hydrated, and enjoying what you eat.
- Cut one unhealthy item from your diet today. Avoid empty calories from sugar-based items such as candy or soda. Commit to dropping one item from your diet, starting immediately. Make sure you eliminate it from cupboards and other areas around the house where the sight of it might tempt you to reintroduce it to your diet; keeping items out of reach or out of sight is a good and easy-to-use self-control tool.
- Replace an unhealthy item from your diet for a healthy one. It is hard to maintain deprivation as a long-term strategy. To replace the feeling of nourishment, consider swapping food items out for healthier ones. Examples of possible replacement items: hard candy = raisins, chips = carrots, cheese dip = hummus, ice cream = greek yogurt with fruit, candy bar = oatmeal with maple syrup.
- Eat one handful of something green every day. If you find yourself eating mostly starch, meats, and dairy, start small by adding just a handful of something green to your daily diet. An easy option is a box of pre-washed baby spinach or mixed greens. Every day, just throw a handful along with whatever you're eating. You'll barely notice it but it'll get you in the habit of eating more plants. Other green handful options: broccoli, arugula, kale, swiss chard, and bok choy.
- Write down what you ate. Whether it's in the evening before bed or the next morning, take a couple minutes to jot down everything you ate for each meal and snacks. No need to count calories or write down servings. Just keep a list of what you ate and keep on doing it. This will get you in the habit of reflecting on your eating habits and also make you more aware of what you are putting into your body. If you want ideas on how to expand your diet in a healthy way, check out this article on Dr. Michael Greger's Daily Dozen.
- Eat a serving of fruit in the morning. Even if you're in a rush and limited in time or not feeling hungry at all, commit to eating a single serving of fruit in the morning. This will not only supply you with energy, fiber, and vitamins, but it will get you in the habit of consuming something fresh and nutritious. Ideas for quick morning fruit: apple, banana, clementine, peach, pear, apricot. If you can take a moment to cut up some fruit: honeydew, kiwifruit, avocado, orange, grapefruit, papaya, cantaloupe. Alternatively, dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, peaches, and cranberries, are excellent sources of nutrition and keep for a long time. See more dried fruit examples.
- Drink half a glass of water in the morning. If you can drink more, great. If you normally go straight for coffee, condition yourself to finish at least half a glass of water before you drink anything else. Hydration impacts the body in a big way. Get yourself used to the act of drinking water and see if you can gradually increase your water intake throughout the day. If you want to experiment with flavors, consider electrolyte tablets like Nuun All Day, which helps you retain water while giving you vitamins.
- Fill up a bottle of water the night before and keep it on your nightstand so that you can drink some of it when you wake up. By making it really easy to get the hydration you need, you take away any excuse not to do it. This microhabit also helps those who are inclined to hit the snooze button by adding a short motor-skill intensive step to the wake up routine.
- When you want another glass of booze, have a glass of water. Break through the urge to have one more glass of wine, another beer, another shot, by replacing alcohol with water. First, set your initial limit, and when you hit the limit, change to water. This reduces the challenge to stop drinking by allowing yourself to continue to drink, just something other than alcohol–which is particularly helpful whenever you’re in a social setting and everyone else is downing a beverage. Your future non-hungover self will thank you.
- When you get up to go to the bathroom at work, bring your water bottle and fill it up at the fountain. This is a three-for-one special: you get to stretch, walk a bit, AND get your necessary hydration. Why would anyone choose to stare at a screen for hours straight? Give your eyes a break too. You don’t necessarily need eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, but being well-hydrated is associated with better mood and skin, among other positive benefits.
- Bring a bag of homemade snacks to work. It’s getting close to the end of the day and the craving hits you. The only thing available to fill your craving? The dreaded vending machine full of unhealthy choices. Skip the vending machine. Reach into your bag of goodies instead, replacing those almost-stale potato chips with some almonds or grapes. Other examples of easily packable foodstuffs: an apple, a hardboiled egg, Greek yogurt, clementines, trail mix of nuts and chocolate. You can go even further and create more complicated snack items–the key is to bring something to work that you’ll actually enjoy! If you won’t enjoy eating it, chances are you’ll default to the tastier but less healthy option at your disposal.
- Whenever you find yourself about to eat when you’re not hungry, say out loud: “I’m not hungry, but I’m going to eat anyway.” This trick, from the book Mindless Eating, will get you to think twice before mindlessly reaching for a snack or an extra serving that you really can do without.
- Keep your kitchen counter and your dining room table clear of any foods and snacks. The more visible and accessible food is, the more likely you’ll unconsciously reach over and eat them. If this means you have a bag of chips or cookies laying around, you’ll unknowingly consumer hundreds of calories on a regular basis. You can use this same tactic to only leave out healthy snacks like fruits, nuts, and veggies if you want to get yourself to snack on healthier options.
- Only buy groceries for the week and go shopping every week. Some may find this challenging and time-consuming, but there are multiple benefits. First, only buying groceries for the week will prevent you from stocking up on bulk items or overestimating the amount of food you’ll actually cook at home. This will help you keep food waste low and also prevent any mindless binge-eating (think Costco boxes of fruit snacks or chips). Secondly, going to the grocery every week will force you to think more often of the food choices you make and get you to try different varieties of food. The more you learn about what’s available and what’s good for you, the healthier your choices will become. And lastly, a weekly trip to the grocery means more opportunities to buy and finish fresh produce each week. This will encourage you to try more varieties of fruits and vegetables, significantly improving your diet.
- Sprinkle flaxseed on your foods. Adding flaxseed to your bowl of cereal, your yogurt, your smoothie, or even your bowl of pasta is a great way to get healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids (1.8 grams per tablespoon), fiber, and lignans, which can protect the body against cancer by blocking enzymes that are involved in hormone metabolism and also by interfering with the growth and spread of tumor cells. A 24-ounce bag of flaxseeds sells for under $10 and can last a long time if you store it in a fridge.
- Eat a handful of walnuts every day. Walnuts are high in antioxidants, omega-3 levels, and known for suppressing cancer cell growth. Keep a bag of shelled walnuts handy and eat them straight or chop them up and add them to your various foods: on top of an English muffin, with a bowl of ice cream, as part of a trail mix, etc.
- Use a smaller bowl or plate for your meals. One way to automate portion control is to make it more work to load up on big amounts of food. Studies have shown that we tend to mindlessly fill up the space of large plates and therefore end up consuming more, even if we didn't intend to. Starting with a small plate or bowl will make you more conscious of your portions and give you an out before you unconsciously eat too much and get too stuffed.
- Add a pinch of herbs and spices to your dishes. Herbs and spices such as dried oregano, marjoram, cloves, or cinnamon are highly efficient ways to add antioxidants to your daily diet (not to mention great flavors). Other spices to consider: cayenne pepper, garam masala, berbere, Italian seasoning, paprika, and za-atar.
- Add green tea to your rotation of beverages. Green tea is a miracle beverage. It not only has caffeine, which provides alertness, but l-theanine, which helps keep the caffeine "jitters" in check with its anti-anxiety effects. Green tea is also a great source of antioxidants and may protect against cancer growth. Pick up a box of green tea bags or loose leaf and drink it either hot or cold.
- Slow down, chew, taste, and enjoy your food. We are often in a rush to shovel our food down and move on to the next thing. Or we're engrossed in conversation or phone-checking, relegating eating to background activity. These mindless habits can lead to overeating and indigestion–overeating because your brain doesn't yet realize you're full as you keep chowing down at a torrid pace and indigestion because you haven't sufficiently broken down your food into smaller particles for your body to process. When eating, take a moment to consider the food, to chew it slowly, to fully taste it, and then to appreciate it. You may not be able to do this for an entire meal, but give it a try for a few bites every meal and see if you can build up from there.