My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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This Wednesday: Tips…to eat better.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Tips…to eat better.

Paradoxically, studies show that over time, people who diet tend to gain more weight than people who don’t diet. Here are some non-dieting tips for eating better that have worked for me:

1. To have a tastier salad without adding calories—yes, this sounds crazy, but it really improves the flavor—sprinkle a packet of Equal or any artificial sweetener on it. Don’t laugh, try it!

2. Never eat anything at a children’s birthday party. If you have kids, this rule is crucial.

3. Eat smaller portions. At a restaurant, order an appetizer for your entree, ask for an appetizer portion, or leave 25% of each serving on your plate. Studies show that while cutting fat, eating more fruits and vegetables, and increasing exercise all help people lose weight, the single most effective change is to trim portion size.

4. Never eat hors d’oeuvres. When I see that tray of crab cakes passing by, I remind myself that I’m likely to get something stuck in my teeth, spray crumbs at people while I’m talking, drip on my clothes, or get bad breath.

5. Eating a high-fiber diet is filling and also blocks calorie absorption. Studies suggest that if the average American woman did nothing more than increase her daily fiber from 12 grams to 24 grams, she’d lose 10 pounds a year. But 24 grams, or the other recommendation, 34 grams, is a lot of fiber. I manage to get that much only by eating Extra Fiber All-Bran, which has 13 grams per serving. I mix it with yoghurt for breakfast, and often mix it with oatmeal for dinner. Also, eat brown rice instead of white rice, and whole-wheat pasta.

6. I take two Tums each day for calcium, and I’ve discovered that if I’m genuinely hungry, eating a few Tums staves off hunger pains for a while.

7. Have two slices of whole-wheat toast instead of a bagel. I used to eat a bagel every day, now I consider bagels rare treat.

8. Don’t eat off other people’s plates. Consider that two swallows of a chocolate milkshake has 72 calories, and four fast-food French fries have 42 calories. It adds up.

9. Keep a bowl of sliced red and yellow peppers in the fridge.

10. Know your weaknesses, and avoid them. My weakness is anything in mini form. I wouldn’t dream of eating a whole Tootsie Roll bar, but I’d eat 50 mini-Tootsie Rolls without blinking.

11. Get more sleep. One recent study showed that women who slept less than five hours of each night were far more likely to gain a lot of weight than women who slept at least seven hours—even though they ate less.

12. Remember the movie When Harry Met Sally? I refuse to feel sheepish in a restaurant about pulling a “Sally” by asking for my food without olives, blue cheese, sauce, dressing on the side, etc.

13. Never drink juice, and only drink skim milk.

14. Eat at home as much as possible. Who knows what’s in restaurant food? My brother-in-law worked in a restaurant kitchen, and he said that no matter what you ask for, everything has a ton of butter.

15. Keep a food journal. The evidence is overwhelming that people who log their intake eat much better than those who don’t. I have to confess, though, that as part of the Happiness Project I’ve been trying to keep a food journal, and I’m failing. I just can’t seem to remember to keep up with it. But I’m still trying.

16. Keep tempting food out of reach. I know that if a plate of cookies is sitting next to me, sooner or later, I’ll eat some.

17. If you’re eating too much of a favorite food (cheese, ice cream), give it up entirely. I was addicted to an allegedly low-calorie brand of chocolate chip cookie. I was buying two or three cookies each day! I had to go cold turkey. “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” Samuel Johnson.

18. Try to eat foods that contain a lot of water and/or vegetables. Soup is always a good choice.

19. Here is my favorite eat-healthy recipe, for a fruit smoothie. It’s filling, nutritious, and delicious:

1 cup skim milk
A cup or so of frozen strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, or peaches
8 packets of artificial sweetener (eight is a lot, but I like things very sweet)
Lots of ice
Mix together in a blender.

  • Michael Genrich

    A great way to combine Nos. 5 and 19 is by adding 3/4 cup of cooked oatmeal to the blender. Gives a kick of healthy protein to your smoothie as well.

  • AmiNTT

    Great stuff Gretchen!
    Bran flakes are a great, crunchy snack instead of chips while watching a movie – I find it satisfies the need for crunch.
    Broccoli with some low-calorie dressing (I’m a fan of red pepper dressing) is an excellent, filling snack as well.

  • Wes

    Why exactly would you want to stop drinking fruit juice?

  • Jim C.

    Juices have as much sugar as soda. It’s better to just eat the fruit.
    Frozen banana chunks are actually not a bad substitute for ice cream.
    Frozen grapes and frozen seedless orange segments make nice treats.
    The popular advice about drinking 8 8-oz. glasses of water every day is wrong. Just drink when you’re thirsty and you’ll be okay. One disadvantage of drinking too much water is that, when you’re not thirsty, nothing tastes quite as good.
    I love the Samuel Johnson quote. I feel the same way. If you can give up all sweets, do it. After a few days, everything else will taste that much sweeter.

  • Jon Gabriel

    Similar to the “avoid juices” advice, avoid store-bought Smoothies. Although marketed as extremely healthy, most are loaded with sugar.
    To minimize food loss, smoothie shops usually use frozen fruit. In order to preserve flavor and freshness during the freezing process, A LOT of sugar is added (TONS!). This is bad for your waistline, your complexion and energy level.
    Juicing fresh fruit already concentrates the natural sugars and minimizes the fiber. When you add in all the extra sugar for the freezing process, we’re talking about serious sugar overload.

  • Adam Blinkinsop

    On the food journal: you might want to take a look at Calorie Count ( ). I have a bit of a chart-and-graph fetish, so it keeps me interested.
    I’ll have to try #1, though :)

  • Edward Vielmetti

    On the other hand, what happened to “Eat a peach?”
    Artifical sweetener on your lettuce? How about good black pepper, or a splash of balsamic vinegar?

  • Trev

    Out of curiosity, why shouldn’t I eat anything at a children’s birthday party? I can think of about 100 fingers that have probably been through all of the chips, but what is the overall reason?
    Thanks for a great list!

  • K.L.

    So eating Tums when you’re hungry make you happy – how?? I’m all for eating good whole foods and limiting portions, but munching artifically flavored ‘chalk’ to stave off hunger pains goes right into the ‘sad, very sad’ category in my book.

  • D.B.

    How about you just exercise a little bit instead of making your life miserable and starving yourself? Why would you feel guilty about eating some chocolate chip cookies? Never drink juice again? Are you kidding? Drinking grapefruit juice at breakfast is the highlight of my day. Your body runs off carbohydrates, specifically sugars. Exercise every day, and you’ll not only burn stored fat, but you’ll need enough calories that you can eat your fill of carbs and fat throughout the day. Depending on the person, about 30% of your calories should come from fat. If you’re restricting yourself to a 1,500 calorie/day diet, that means you can only consume 50 grams of fat. Exercise and increase your daily calorie intake to 2,750, and you can consume more than 90 grams.

  • Eric

    D.B., Not everyone has, or even desires to have, your metabolism. I wouldn’t want to eat 2,750 calories in a day. I gain weight when I consume more than 1,500 calories per day. I’d have to do 2 hours of high intensity aerobics daily to fend off the extra 1,250 calories. I don’t like food *that* much, and I don’t like aerobics at all. If I replaced the water in my diet with sugary drinks, such as fruit juice and soda, I could easily consume an extra 1,250 calories per day — and put on about 10 pounds of fat per month. In a year’s time I’d be 100 pounds overweight and on my way to becoming diabetic! That being said, I wouldn’t want a higher metabolism. It’s not good to run your body like a sports car. You’ll burn yourself out (free radicals, toxins, stress) and spend the last 5 years of your shortened life sickly (cancer, heart disease, organ failure). Don’t live to eat; eat to live. A sensible combination of moderate diet and exercise is the key to a long, healthy life.

  • D.B.

    Eric: I never made any claims about my own metabolism. Yes, you would have to do 2 hours of high-intensity exercise a day to burn off an extra 1,250 calories. I used 1,250 as an example. I wasn’t implying that people should add another 1,250 calories to their diet — just that some exercise will allow you to eat more of the foods you like, which is certainly more sensible (to me) than depriving yourself of things that taste good. It isn’t gluttony to enjoy a glass of fruit juice or a chocolate chip cookie. Why would you replace all the water in your diet with fruit juice? That’s just as absurd a statement as the original post’s “Never drink juice”. You seem to balk at the concept of doing 2 hours of exercise, and that is exactly my point. I didn’t tell you to do aerobics — do something you enjoy doing: surfing, swimming, ballet dancing, BMX riding, whatever you like. And I never said a word about soda; soda isn’t full of anti-oxidants, vitamins, and trace minerals like juice is. I believe you go on to try to say that if you exercise daily, you’re going to end up with cancer, heart disease, and organ failure? That doesn’t make any sense. Not to mention the fact that any analogy between a race car and the human body is woefully, ridiculously simplistic. I never said live to eat — in fact, just the opposite. Depriving yourself of wonderful foods like juice and the occasional cookie is not only ridiculous, it’s unhealthy and is NOT eating for living. A balanced diet is the way to go. And a balanced diet certainly is not a diet without fruit juice, carbohydrates, or fat.

  • Monica Ricci

    I stopped drinking commercial juice about a year ago. (Honestly, if I’m going to consume a glass full of sugar, I’d rather just have a Coke.) I start my day by putting six large organic carrots through my juicer. It yields about 10 – 12 ounces of carrot juice, it’s DELISH and delightfully healthy. If I want apple or orange or any other kind of juice, I just juice it myself. After juicing my own fruits and veggies, I found I’ve lost my taste for 99% of commercial juices. ~Monica

  • K.L.

    Well said, D.B.! The approach of Mireille Guiliano of ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’ fame and the general Weight Watchers philosophy have both worked for me. Good, real, delicious food in sensible quantities and plenty of water, and yes, ‘treats’ here and there. Just one small chocolate chip cookie made with the freshest ingredients (real butter, dark choc bits), hot out of your home oven, can really do it for you, whereas an entire bag of ‘low cal’ or other similar store-bought (=artificial something or other) can still leave you feeling deprived. And you know – if Happiness is the goal here, eating that cookie and then playing frisbee with my kids later sounds a whole lot better than filling my growling belly with tropical-fruit Tums.

  • Jon Gabriel

    Before we get into flame wars over this post, let’s keep in mind that there isn’t one “right” diet or exercise regimen. Different things work for different people. If you drink a quart of juice daily and it works for you, awesome. If a no-carb diet improved your life, keep it going. If you can ignore calories as long as you exercise, good on ya.
    This post is a list of things that worked for the author; it doesn’t claim to be the one true path to health. (Actually, I want to try the Tums “hack” when I’m stuck in a long meeting and can’t slip out for a more substantive meal.)

  • K.L.

    No intentions of dissing the author, Jon – and you are right to point out that there are many ways to approach good health. (I think it’s great that Gretchen is taking the time to put these ideas out there in an enjoyable, engaging format.) My point is just that if the focus of the Blog is the Pursuit of Happiness, and the topic of this post is Eating Better , I have trouble seeing how some of the tips contribute to either… the goal instead seems to be getting or staying slender. (BTW, I would absolutely argue that striving for and achieving a healthy BMI and a respectable level of fitness has its place in happiness – but that’s a different focus than some of the tips point to…)
    And, on a lighter note, I’ve found that the Aussie/Kiwi way of offering adults a glass of champagne at children’s birthday parties takes care of any need to munch on nutrionally void party fare! I’ve co-opted the tradition…
    Done now. I promise. Cheers.

  • Gretchen Rubin

    Wow! Who knew that JUICE was such a controversial subject? For the record, my view is that if you want nutrition, eat the fruit, don’t drink the juice — juice means a lot more calories and a lot less fiber. Of course, if you love juice, it can be a treat like anything else, but it’s not the healthier choice.
    About the Tums — I don’t really substitute Tums for a meal. I just happen to have them at my desk, so if I get hungry but don’t want to eat right away, a few Tums makes it easier to wait (as Jon Gabriel said in his post). I get hungry A LOT, and it’s very inconvenient. Although there seems to be some question about how much good they actually do, my doctor at least does recommend them for the calcium.

  • Monica Ricci

    I love the idea of champagne for the adults at a childrens birthday party, but dangit, my Inner Third Grader wants birthday cake! (Now that many of my friends have kids, she gets it too) :)


    I really like the smoothie recipe, simple and easy. So as to not quote the sitcom, Eight IS NOT enough, but it does sure make one hell of a smoothie. Splenda is awesome with the smoothie. I often times add 1/4 cup of nonfat plain vanilla yogurt to the smoothie for some more substance.
    Great tips I have them on my PDA for quick glances to remind me of things I can do to prevent a bad habit from reoccuring.
    -James Benito Villarreal Flores

  • Kelly

    Wouldn’t honey be a healthier substitute for sugar AND artificial sweetener in the smoothie? That’s what I use. Stevia is another option. ;)

  • lea

    perhaps a “happiness and food” blog, as a sort of line extension of the overall Happiness Project, is necessary: consider the demand here, consider the responses. my personal struggle is with salt, which i use on everything, including my bloody “lettuces.” we all have our vices, and i’m deeply suspicious of curtailing them. my beau pointed out the other day that while i’m generally healthy i become a raging salt-addict about, oh, once a month? i would never give up my wheat thin binges, though. i love them more than i loved smoking, and–i hope?–they can’t possibly be as bad for me. i just went “off” swordfish, my most favorite food (esp. when heavily salted), having given in to the whole absurd yet data-backed mercury study. then, last weekend, at my local country fish market, the owner told me the whole mercury craze was “bollocks.” who can we trust.

  • Ali

    boy oh boy people get excited about juice! :)
    I don’t see anything wrong with your tips. They are only that — no one is saying they are unbreakable rules that everyone must follow. I appreciate your thoughts and what has worked for you.

  • Tim

    Good writing, simple is the best! Have a look into the research into food and health by leading scientists throughout the world over the past thirty years has proved beyond reasonable doubt that the high-fat, high-sugar, high-protein, high-salt, low-fiber Western diet is bad for individuals and bad for the population as a whole. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that there is great interest in the concept of the ‘basic healthy diet’, as people prepare to enter the next millennium.

  • Korri

    Equal and artificial sweeteners are TERRIBLE for your body. You’d be far better off eating sugar. If you want some sweetness on your salads you could also try pomegranate seeds, the juice also acts as a salad dressing with or without a tiny bit of oil. Also you can cut up some pear with a few walnuts…nuts are great for brain function and keep you fuller longer.Dried cranberries in a salad make it a beautiful thing!

  • CA

    Do you know about She has lots of tips on all kinds of foods and recipes for guilt-free substitutions. I get an email from the site daily, and it has guided me well when I’m stuck with only fast food options (e.g., choose Wendy’s chili or Taco Bell’s grilled steak soft taco fresco style) or don’t know which new product to try (e.g., Edy’s/Dryer’s slow churned light ice cream tastes the best for the calories/fat).

  • CA

    and speaking of juice, LEMON juice is fantastic squeezed over a salad. I just ask for some lemon wedges instead of dressing at restaurants :)

  • chicklet

    As soon as I eliminated fake foods from my diet, I found the happy medium I needed. I use only one tablespoon of real butter, vs. three of the fake stuff on my baked potato. Same with sour cream, cheese, milk (I drink 1% vs. skim) juices, etc.
    another useful tool for me is to thin about how something will actually taste. That slice of birthday cake? Probably made with shortening, not butter, and won’t taste very good to me, so I skip it. When I’m craving a sweet drink, I mix juice (100% juice, no sweeteners) with some sparkling water and am very satisfied.
    Also, I found that I lost 10 lbs without trying: I switched from coffee with cream to lattes with 8 oz of 1% milk. I also try to drink a glass of milk in the evening (usually with a cookie or two). This was the only dietary change I made, and i found my jeans getting looser within a month or so.
    Thanks again for a thoughtful article.

  • beebmaboorne

    It was bellly genty when Kath and Sarah awoke. I demanded, as his urinals hitched fortunately and cupped my circuit through my hungy skirt.

  • Analee

    Eating food which has a lot of water in it is not only good dieting sense but good sense for your body all around.
    Also: rather than chemically loaded artificial sweetener, it is well worth it to your bodily, mental and emotional well being to stop by a health food store and pick up a small packet of stevia — and I do say small, because you will be using amounts tinier than you would believe possible. If you use too much, the dish ends up tasting terrible. So, although it looks expensive in the container, the littlest amount will last just about forever.
    Stevia is as actively good for you as crystalized sugar is bad. You can make not only salads and deserts taste good with it, but just about anything you eat. Manufacturers add sugar or sugar equivalents to just about every food they package for us — just read the labels to find that out. We can do the same with a truly nutritious substance, and make eating easier for folks who, like me, have trouble with eating disorders to begin with!

  • Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon

    I will be right back *Five minutes later*
    I got my Health and Fitness shake recipe, I have more to add to it still though.

    As for eating right, Every day before training, I drink my H&F
    Shake, I just mix peanuts with chocolate(More peanuts than chocolate,
    And not too much chocolate), Then add some milk along with sliced
    bananas, Then I add some ice cream, For sweetness, And make sure, It is
    all blended good, And just drink it, It helps me wake up sometimes in
    the morning,(I drink it every day before school, And it also, Keeps me
    refreshed and light on my feet whilst I practice.  By training, I am referring to something else, But I am training Martial Arts/Jeet Kune Do.

  • Linda

    Fantastic, except for the artificial sweetener-very very bad chemicals, raw honey or stevia is a healthier choice