By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
Many people struggle with eating in our food-centric environment. But there are those who are successful despite all the distractions, fad diets, and larger-than-life portions. While some of these people have eaten well most their life, others have found a way to sustain positive change.
These “successful eaters” eat nutritious foods most of the time, prepare meals in ways that work for them, enjoy eating, and regulate food intake well. So with some input from top-notch registered dietitians, I’ve listed 7 key factors that increase the likelihood someone will have success with eating.
1. Prefers fruits and vegetables: A 2012 study published in Appetite showed that women who sustained healthy diets actually had taste preferences for fruits and vegetables. People who are successful with eating consume healthy foods for taste just as much as nutrition.
“I think that the most successful eaters rely on whole plant-based foods and lots of vegetables,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, The Veggie Queen. “Generally, they know how to cook the ‘real’ foods that they eat.”
2. Has a flexible eating style: The research on restrained eaters shows that those with “rigid control” gain more weight over time than those with “flexible control.” Successful eaters are flexible with their eating — a better fit for real life.
“I like to describe eating on a 10-point scale, where 1 is being super strict and following all the diet rules to an extreme. Most of the people I work with who live like this eventually can’t stand it anymore and jump over to 10 where they follow no diet rules and eat as if they might get hit by a bus tomorrow, ” says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, CDE, author of Diabetes Weight Loss—Week by Week. “Those who are successful tend to eat in the 4-5-6 range. Maybe 6 is when they’re on vacation, 4 when they’ve gained a couple of pounds or just returned from a vacation, and 5 is the rest of the time.”
3. Focus on the positive: When I talk to people about food they always start with their weakness or what they need to avoid. The problem with this strategy is the mind tends to focus on whatever you think about most. Instead, successful eaters focus on the yummy, nutritious foods you want to include in their diet.
“In my experience, successful eaters don’t deprive themselves of their favorite foods,” says Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, LDN, author of The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods. “They eat in moderation, relish variety, and savor and enjoy all foods.”
4. Trust the body’s wisdom: I used to sit in amazement when someone would turn down cake because they were full or allow ice cream to sit in their fridge for months. But now I understand that trusting and listening to your body, instead of your head, may be the most important success factor for eating well.
“The clients who have been the most successful in returning to their inborn intuitive eating skills are the ones who make true peace with food–no lingering judgment,” says Elyse Resch, MS, RD, coauthor of Intuitive Eating: a Revolutionary Program that Works. “They also understand the difference between restriction (which is planned in advance) and setting limits (which is an internal process, based on fullness signals).”
5. Make it a lifestyle: When I first became interested in nutrition, I would eat ultra healthy all week and go hog wild all weekend. At the time I didn’t know how to live in both worlds sensibly — and I constantly felt conflicted. Successful eaters eat healthy a majority of the time (on vacation and weekends!) because it is a preferred lifestyle.
Creating this healthy lifestyle takes time and patience but is well worth it. Making small changes, deciding which foods do it for you, fitting in activity, and constantly reevaluating what’s working and not, are key.
6. Remove perceived barriers. The 2012 study in Appetite showed that nutritious eaters were also less likely to perceive barriers to healthy eating such as time and cost. Successful eaters are able to eat well under most circumstances, which means their confidence and desire to maintain health habits is high.
“Whether it is a quick trip to the grocery store or a longer time spent away from home, the healthy eater is always prepared,” says Leah Kaufman, MS, RD. “Being prepared may include having a healthy snack on hand or knowing where you can get a healthy meal.”
7. Keep nutrition in perspective: Successful eaters don’t jump on every new nutrition trend or react negatively to the latest health and nutrition report. Instead, they are consistent with their diets and include healthy foods that are filling and satisfying.
“Successful eaters are those who include water, fiber and protein in many of their meals,” says Kathryn Fink, MS, RD. “This helps with awareness of hunger and fullness and being mindful”
Do any of these success factors ring true with you? Are some more challenging than others? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.