Recently I had the opportunity to read a prepublication copy of a book by Bryan Green, who ran with Meb Keflezighi at UCLA and now cohosts (along with retired elite middle-distance runner Jon Rankin) the Go Be More podcast. Titled Make the Leap, the book is based on the premise that, as Green puts it, “the better we think about our training, the better we will train.” He writes, “The workouts are not the problem. Having a better mental framework to understand training is what’s missing. It doesn’t matter how good the training plan is if you’re holding yourself back mentally.”
I think he’s right. And I also think the same truth holds for diet. In my experience, what distinguishes athletes who are happy with the results they’re getting from their diet from those who aren’t is not so much what they eat as how they think about food and eating. Science backs up this notion. Consider the following studies:
Canadian researchers reported in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2007 that, within a population of 364 college students, emotional intelligence was a strong positive predictor of healthy diet strategy.
Seven years later, in the same journal, scientists at Laurier University and Gettysburg College reported that trait-level mindfulness was strongly associated with healthier eating.
In a 2015 study published in Psychology & Health, Researchers in Florida reported that, within a population of 5,150 adult subjects, those who scored high for neuroticism in a standard test of personality traits had a significantly higher body mass index.
Another 2015 study, this one done by an international research team and published on PLoS One, reported that the well-established relationship between eating consistency and successful weight management was mediated by the personality trait of self-control in a group of 164 women.
Finally, New Zealand researchers reported in a study published in the journal Appetite in 2014 that “[p]articipants with a weight-loss goal who associated chocolate cake with guilt were less successful at losing weight over a 3-month period compared to those associating chocolate cake with celebration.” This effect was mediated by lower levels of perceived behavioral control over eating.
I’m not suggesting that the food a person eats doesn’t matter. As you well know, there’s tons of research out there showing that the healthiest people tend to eat lots of certain kinds of foods and small amounts of certain other kinds of foods. But who is it that actually consistently eats a lot of healthy foods and not a lot of unhealthy foods? People who think a certain way about food, that’s who!
I’m not an expert in food psychology, so I probably won’t get this right, but in my experience as an endurance coach and nutritionist (which is extensive), I see two types of individuals as far as thinking about food is concerned: those who problematize eating and those who don’t. To problematize a thing is to make a problem of it even though it doesn’t need to be. Healthy eating comes easily for healthy eaters. That’s because, on a purely practical level, healthy eating really is easy.
This doesn’t mean it’s your fault if you’ve struggled to find and stick with eating habits you’re fully satisfied with. Things like neuroticism and non-mindfulness that make healthy eating difficult for many people aren’t flaws to be ashamed of but limitations to work on. The message of this post is that if you really want to reach a point where healthy eating is easy, stop searching for the right diet (which has been right in front of you for your entire life) and take steps to improve how you think about food.
One way to do this is by practicing mindful eating. There are several smart phone apps, including the popular Am I Hungry? app, that can help you in this process, as well as books like Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung.
As for improving how you think about training—I’ll revisit this topic when Bryan Green’s book is released. Promise!