The Science-Backed Strategies That Will Actually Help You Eat Better
Many of the strategies that you think will work don’t. Here are the surprising things that do.
Many of the strategies that you think will work don’t. Here are the surprising things that do.
We know what we should eat. Trouble is, most of us have a hard time sticking to it.
Researchers are racing to understand what pushes people to make healthier food choices. They are finding that broad resolutions to “eat better” are less effective than setting a couple of smaller rules, that eating with other people is helpful and that grocery shopping online can be better than going to the store.
The issue is urgent: The number of Americans who are overweight or have obesity is rising. Nearly three-quarters of US adults ages 20 and older are overweight or obese, according to 2017-2018 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some surveys have found that obesity rates rose further during the pandemic.
Doctors and scientists broadly agree that a healthful diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meat and poultry—and is composed of fewer foods linked to poor health, including sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, refined grains and large amounts of red meat. Yet most of Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of vegetables, and three-quarters overeat refined grains, such as white bread, according to a government report.
“We’re living in a time where there’s food everywhere. You go to buy a hammer and there’s soda in the checkout line,” says Erica Kenney, assistant professor of public health nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “People berate themselves, but they are fighting against the environment.”
Whether you are trying to overhaul your diet, resist the peanut-butter cups in the checkout aisle or maintain the good habits you already have, research suggests some ways to make healthy eating easier.
People are more likely to act on a plan if it consists of simple steps, psychology research has found. Having one broad goal—such as, “I’m going to eat better”—generally isn’t effective.
Pick one or two specific eating rules and stick to them—and think of yourself as someone who doesn’t do those things. For instance: I don’t consume sugary drinks. Or I don’t eat fried foods. Or I don’t eat dessert during the week.
Restricting yourself in multiple ways makes it harder to stick with good intentions, says Christina A. Roberto, associate professor of health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Conversely, setting a rule “just takes the decision out of it,” says Deborah F. Tate, professor at the Nutrition Research Institute at the University of North Carolina.
Making a shopping list of healthful foods can encourage you to avoid impulse buys when you are at the store, says UNC’s Dr. Tate.
Shopping for groceries online might be even more effective since unhealthy items aren’t right in front of you. Research has found that people tend to make better food choices farther in advance of eating, so the delay between making an online order and receiving it could be helpful, Dr. Roberto says.
People looking to lose weight who shop online buy fewer high-fat foods and fewer items overall compared with those who shop in person, according to a 2007 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity that followed 28 participants over eight weeks.
One caveat: Be wary of online ads trying to persuade you to buy items you didn’t plan to purchase. That marketing can derail your good intentions.
Not sleeping enough (generally less than six-and-a-half hours a night) is linked to weight gain, scientific studies have found. Sleep experts generally recommend that healthy adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.
When we are awake longer, we have more time to eat. And there are biological changes that occur when we don’t sleep enough that can lead to overeating.
“Some research suggests there are potential changes to appetite-related hormones when we have short sleep,” says Alyssa Minnick, a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Sleep Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. When we are sleep-deprived we tend to crave more high-fat foods, too, she says.
Penn researchers found that study participants allowed to sleep just four hours a night for five nights ate on average an extra 550 calories daily. The paper was published in 2013 in the journal Sleep. More recent research has had similar findings.
When we eat with family and friends we tend to make more well-rounded meals with vegetables, proteins and other components, says Barbara J. Mayfield, a registered dietitian in Delphi, Ind. We also tend to eat more slowly, and often mindfully, when with others, she says, making us better able to notice when we are full.
Eating with others who are also committed to healthy eating can help us achieve our goals, says Rebecca Seguin-Fowler, associate director of the Institute for Advancing Health Through Agriculture at Texas A&M University. You are more apt to skip dessert when your dining companions are too, she says.
Studies have found that when one person in a household is trying to improve their diet and lose weight, the other members lose weight too, even if they aren’t trying to, says Amy Gorin, interim vice provost for health sciences at the University of Connecticut.
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Sales of the cosmetic product are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak discretionary-goods environment
Masks off, lipstick index on.
In a gloomy economy, consumers might cut back on other discretionary purchases but will keep shelling out for small luxuries such as lipstick—or so goes the theory. “When lipstick sales go up, people don’t want to buy dresses,” Leonard Lauder, then-chairman of Estée Lauder who is widely credited for coming up with the so-called “lipstick index,” told The Wall Street Journal in 2001.
L’Oréal Chief Executive Nicolas Hieronimus called this out during the company’s earnings call in October, noting that a luxury lipstick or mascara is only €30, making it an “affordable treat.” Sales at L’Oréal rose 9.1% in the third quarter compared with a year earlier despite slower sales in China due to Covid-related lockdowns. Coty, maker of CoverGirl makeup, said organic sales grew 9% over the same period.
Beauty sales have also been a rare bright spot for retailers: Target said beauty category sales grew roughly 15% in its quarter ended Oct. 29 compared with a year earlier, with Ulta Beauty shops in Target tripling their total sales volume over that period.
While Macy’s namesake stores saw comparable-store sales decline last quarter, its beauty-focused Bluemercury chain saw same-store sales grow 14% last quarter compared with a year earlier. Kohl’s locations with Sephora are outperforming the rest of the department-store chain.
Of the 14 discretionary categories that market research firm NPD Group tracks, prestige beauty—products you might find at a department store or a Sephora—is the only category that is seeing unit sales growth year to date. And lipstick, which suffered during the masked-up pandemic, is making up for lost time.
Lipstick sales have grown 37% through October this year compared with a year earlier, according to Larissa Jensen, beauty industry analyst at NPD Group. That is an acceleration from the 31% growth seen during the same period last year. Lip product is the only major category within prestige beauty where sales are actually up compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to Ms. Jensen.
Cosmetic companies have also called out strong sales in fragrances, calling it the “fragrance index.” Demand has been so robust that there is an industrywide fragrance component shortage, Coty said in a press release announcing third-quarter earnings earlier this month. CEO Sue Nabi said during the call that Coty hasn’t seen any kind of trade-down or slowdown, also noting that consumers are shifting away from gifting perfume to buying it for themselves.
“A big piece of it is just a shift in what wellness means to consumers,” NPD Group’s Ms. Jensen said. “Beauty is one of the few industries that are positioned to meet [consumers’] emotional need. It makes them feel good.”
While the lipstick effect could be observed in the recession in the early 2000s, that wasn’t the case during the 2007-09 recession, during which lipstick sales declined alongside other discretionary purchases. Part of this might have had to do with category-specific dynamics.
There was a lot of newness in the cosmetic industry in 2001, including lip gloss, a relatively nascent category back then. That tailwind simply wasn’t there starting in 2008, though nail polish turned out to be consumers’ small indulgence of choice in that period. This time around, consumers may be eager to show off a part of their face that was hidden behind a mask for so long during the pandemic.
In an otherwise bleak environment for companies selling discretionary goods, those in the business of selling cosmetics look well poised to come out of the holiday season looking freshened up.
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