by Niall Doherty

My Saturdays are disgusting.

On a typical Saturday in Amsterdam, my diet will look something like this:

  • A large slice of apple pie with cream
  • A large latte macchiato with sugar
  • A toasted cheese and ham sandwich with extra mayonnaise
  • A cappuccino with sugar
  • A half-dozen mini Toblerones
  • A quarter pounder with bacon
  • A bottle of soda
  • A couple of slices of pizza
  • A serving of french fries
  • Another cappuccino
  • Another half-dozen mini Toblerones
  • A bigger bar of milk chocolate
  • And maybe some muesli with full-fat yogurt

I’ve been consuming such junk every Saturday for about eighteen months now, and I still have a six pack.

Granted, I exercise regularly, but rarely do I spend more than 2.5 hours a week intentionally raising my heart rate.

Mostly it’s my eating habits that I have to thank for my enduring washboard abs, and in this article I’m going to tell you exactly what those habits are.

I like to refer to my setup as “the nudge diet”, but it’s not really a diet. It’s more a framework anyone can use to nudge themselves towards healthier food choices most of the time. Whether you’re vegan, paleo, something more extreme or in between, this article should help you stick more to your ideal (assuming you know what your ideal is).

Let’s start with some general principles, and then I’ll tell you exactly how I put them into practice.

4 Principles For Better Eating

These are the four principles, discussed in detail further down.

  1. Set Food Rules
  2. Plan Your Indulgences
  3. Use Trade-Offs
  4. Slow Down

1. Set Food Rules

Some people really balk at this concept. I can hear them now: “Why have rules at all? Why not just eat whatever you feel like eating?”

Here are three reasons for setting some food rules for yourself:

a) If you eat what you want, when you want, most likely you’ll soon become fat and unhealthy. Our bodies are hardwired to want salt, sugar and fat. Food companies know this and so overload their products with salt, sugar and fat.

b) As Brain Wansink brilliantly illustrates in Mindless Eating, we are largely unconscious of what influences our eating. The size of your plate, the music in the supermarket, the words on the label… all of that and more has a huge impact on what you eat and how much (seriously, read the book; the examples are fascinating). Setting rules in advance helps us overcome these influences and eat more mindfully.

c) Quoting Wansink:

“My lab’s research has shown that the average person makes well over 200 decisions about food every day.”

Setting yourself a few food rules drastically reduces that number and thus delays decision fatigue. So instead of playing “will I or won’t I?” every time you pass the cookie jar, you have the decision made in advance (e.g. “I only eat cookies on weekends”) and can save yourself the torment, and the mental energy.

Here are a few examples of food rules you could set for yourself:

  • I will only eat chocolate on weekends.
  • I will only eat fast food once per week.
  • I will only have one cup of coffee per day.
  • I will only eat meat at one meal per day.
  • When ordering a drink, I will always ask for the smallest size.
  • I have to put everything I want to eat in front of me before I start eating. No going back for seconds.

Those are just examples. You can use some of them or create your own. Keep it simple to start by setting just 1-3 rules for yourself.

But be sure to sit down and decide on your rules in advance. Again, you want to avoid having to decide whether you should say yes or no every time you’re offered a cookie or a coffee.

2. Plan Your Indulgences

Most diets fail because they’re too strict. They try to cut out certain foods forever. Most people end up sticking to them for a while but then they cave and binge on the forbidden fruit.

Given this tendency, a smarter approach is to accept that you will probably fall off the wagon eventually, and to consciously plan for that fall.

I do this in the form of a treat day (others call it “cheat day” or “binge day”).

I try to eat super healthy six days a week, staying away from a bunch of foods I’ve identified as troublesome for me, and then on Saturdays I go nuts and eat whatever the hell I want.

Allowing myself off the leash once a week keeps me sane, and seems to work out well health-wise on the whole. It also makes my Saturdays a lot more fun 😉

If you’re trying to clean up a very bad diet, you could make every second day a treat day to start. Or if you want to be a real goodie-two-shoes, you could allow yourself just one treat day a month, or one treat meal a week.

The above assumes that you’re pretty self-disciplined already. If you’re not, keep a food diary and have a friend check on it daily (you could also return the favor for your friend).

3. Use Trade-Offs

Trade-offs are quite simple. Before allowing yourself to eat something unhealthy, you have to do something healthy.

Examples:

  • If I go to the gym today, I can have a nice dessert after dinner.
  • If I take the stairs all day, I can have a soda for lunch.
  • If I make myself a healthy breakfast and lunch, I can get takeout for dinner.
  • If I go for a run this afternoon, I can have two beers this evening.

Identify your own food temptations and add a trade-off to the mix. Make yourself earn it!

4. Slow Down

The slower we eat, the less we tend to eat. A simple trick for slowing down is to wait until you’ve chewed and swallowed a mouthful of food before reloading your fork or spoon. This also forces you to be more present while eating.

Another trick is to simply put down your fork or spoon a few times during the meal.

My Nudge Diet

The above principles are the framework. You can use those to build a better diet for yourself.

Now I’m going to describe the exact diet I’ve built using those principles. It’s a little OCD in places, but it works well for me, even while traveling.

The Points System

The first thing I did was identify my danger foods. And by danger foods I don’t necessarily mean unhealthy foods, but foods I tend to binge on if I’m not careful. We all share a few of these, but some are pretty unique, and they can change over time.

Things like chocolate, soda and fast food obviously count as danger foods for me, but I also count such things as:

  • Bread — it’s so quick and easy to make toast or sandwiches that I can devour a dozen slices a day if I’m not careful.
  • Coffee — I like hanging out in cafes and I like the morning ritual of making and drinking a cup of coffee.
  • Muesli — like bread, this is a convenience food for me, and so I can easily end up eating it mindlessly.

Once I had all my danger foods listed out, I went through and assigned points to each of them.

Minus one’s:

  • One ice cream cone or equivalent.
  • Any piece of chocolate or candy bigger than your thumb, up to one serving.
  • One 330-500 ml soda or equivalent (including sports drinks, unless right after exercise, then it’s minus point-five).
  • Any piece of processed dessert (cake, pie, brownies, etc.) bigger than your thumb, up to one serving.
  • One slice of pizza.
  • One serving of fries (one serving = roughly an amount of food the size of your fist).
  • One serving of anything deep fried.
  • One serving of anything considered fast food or junk food (a quarter pounder is considered -2).
  • One packet of crisps.
  • Any sweetened coffee.
  • One serving of beer (anything from a glass to a pint).
Minus point-five’s:
  • Two slices of bread.
  • Any small pastry (sausage rolls, etc.).
  • Any serving of sweetened peanut butter.
  • One cup/glass of unsweetened coffee.
  • One cup/glass of sweetened tea.
  • One cup/glass of sweetened juice (unless right after exercise).
  • One small cookie or biscuit.
  • Any processed fruit/nut bar.
  • Any glass of wine or spirit (including shots).
  • One serving of cereal (including muesli/granola).
  • One serving of sweetened yogurt or custard.
  • One serving of crackers, breadsticks or equivalent.
  • One smoothie with added sweetener.
  • Any spread with added sweetener (e.g. marmalade).
  • A second serving of meat in one day or three different kinds of meat in one meal.
  • Any piece of chocolate or candy smaller than your thumb.
  • Any piece of processed dessert (cake, pie, brownies, etc.) smaller than your thumb.

With all that figured out and written down, I was ready to begin.

Now each morning I start with 10/10 and I subtract points based on what I eat. Here’s an example of a typical weekday for me:

  • Breakfast:
    • Eggs, spinach, lentils and pasta sauce.
    • Espresso with butter and coconut oil, unsweetened.
  • Lunch:
    • Green smoothie (apple, kiwi, peach, pear, mixed seeds, mixed greens), unsweetened.
    • Small serving of homemade peanut butter, unsweetened.
    • Two bananas.
  • Dinner:
    • Chicken, kidney beans, broccoli.
    • Cup of tea, unsweetened.
  • Snack:
    • One serving of muesli and natural yogurt.

Only the espresso and muesli are on my list of danger foods for that day, and both are minus half a point, so my score at the end of the day would be 9/10.

The goal is to average 9/10 or better from Sunday to Friday, and if reach that goal then I reward myself with a treat day on Saturday, which allows me to eat as much as I want of whatever I want, points be damned!

If I don’t average 9/10 from Sunday to Monday, I continue on counting points for another seven days and aim to drag my average since the last treat day back up above 9/10.

Example 1:

  • Sunday: 9.5
  • Monday: 9
  • Tuesday: 8
  • Wednesday: 9.5
  • Thursday: 10
  • Friday: 8
  • Six-day average: 9/10, therefore I earn my treat day.
  • Saturday: treat day
  • Sunday: start over

Example 2:

  • Sunday: 9
  • Monday: 9
  • Tuesday: 8
  • Wednesday: 7.5
  • Thursday: 10
  • Friday: 9
  • Six-day average: 8.8/10, therefore no treat day.
  • Saturday: 9
  • Sunday: 10
  • Monday: 9.5
  • Tuesday: 9.5
  • Wednesday: 10
  • Thursday: 9
  • Friday: 9.5
  • 13-day average: 9.2/10, therefore I earn my treat day.
  • Saturday: treat day
  • Sunday: start over

Best Of Both Worlds

What I love about this system is that it constantly nudges me towards healthier food choices while also allowing enough wiggle room to occasionally indulge.

I really saw the benefits of this while traveling up through Spain and France a few months back. While traveling it’s so easy to drop your guard and settle for convenience foods, which usually aren’t very good for you. But with this system in place I nudged myself away from the convenience foods and made better choices.

For example, I was staying at a hostel in Barcelona where they offered free breakfast. But that breakfast was toast, croissants, coffee, sweetened yogurt, and some fruit. Before the nudge diet I would have probably taken four slices of toast and one of everything else.

Because, hey, free food is my favorite kind of food!

But that would have meant deducting 2.5 points from my perfect ten right out of the gate. So instead of availing of the free and not-very-healthy breakfast I went to the grocery store near the hostel each morning and bought a few healthier food items.

This system also lets me indulge a bit during the week if I want to.

For example, I was invited over to a friend’s house in Paris and she offered me some chocolate cake that she’d just baked. It looked good and I was able to accept and enjoy a piece without worrying about my diet, because I knew I could just make up the points by being a little extra vigilant with my food choices the rest of the week.

Often what I’ll do is try build up my points early in the week so I then have more to “spend” later in the week if I want to.

Other Rules

I’ll wrap this up by listing out a few more food rules I try to stick to. You may not agree with all or any of these, and that’s fine. Again, the main point here is that it’s a good idea to have your own rules determined in advance so you’re not caught making a decision every time you’re offered food or drink.

  1. When ordering any drink aside from water, always ask for the smallest size.
  2. Use small plates and bowls, and tall, slim drinking glasses where available.
  3. Dish out 20 percent less food than you think you will eat. Except when it comes to fruit and veggies. For those, dish out 20 percent more than you think you will eat.
  4. Fast for 24 hours once per week (ideally starting Monday morning and ending Tuesday morning). Drink as much water or unsweetened tea as you like during those 24 hours. Coffee is okay, too, but the points system still applies.
  5. Eat in season as much as possible.

Comments Welcome

What do you think of my nudge diet? Do you think it could work for you? Any questions or concerns? Let me know via the comments below.