Why Don’t We Just Eat Better?

It’s estimated that ninety-eight percent of attempts to lose weight fail. Ninety-eight percent. That’s a sobering statistic, especially in a country where sixty-seven percent of adults and almost twenty percent of children are overweight. It’s even more shocking to think that the secret to losing weight and getting healthier isn’t a secret at all. We all know what we can do to improve our bodies: just eat better.

Why is it so hard for us to eat a healthy diet? It would appear to be the easiest solution in the world. Just choose wisely at the grocery store and – Poof! – you can feel better, lose weight, and look fantastic. Of course, we all know that eating healthy is never as easy as it sounds. So what is in the way of making good food choices?

The answer is we are. When we try to eat healthy, we’re picking fights against our own brains. Instead of working through those arguments, we make excuses. While we say we want change, the truth is that there are a number of reasons that we don’t. We can’t eat better until we understand why, deep down, we don’t actually want to. It’s time to sit down and work through our issues and excuses when it comes to healthy food so we can finally get past them and choose a healthier lifestyle.

We Think Healthy Foods Are Gross (Even If They’re Not).

Let’s be honest – most of us think that health foods aren’t the tastiest items on the menu. When school kids were asked what foods they dislike, for example, every single one named a vegetable. Health foods are those things we think we have to eat, but really don’t want to. We don’t choose to eat them – and why would we? They’re stiff, chewy, and tasteless. In short, they’re gross.

I can hear you now – I don’t think that! you’re saying. Guess what? You probably do, at least unconsciously. Even adults who might think they’re unbiased fall into the trap of thinking healthy foods taste bad. Tell someone that cheese or yogurt is low in fat, and they’ll say it doesn’t taste as good as the higher-fat version, even if the two items are the exact same thing. Or, take soy items, for example. Studies have found that merely labeling a foodstuff as containing soy will make people claim that it is grainy, less flavorful and has a bad aftertaste even if it doesn’t contain soy. Simply implying that a food is healthy alters how it tastes to us through a complex interaction between our tastes and our brains.

It’s not your fault that you think less of good foods – you’ve been trained to think that way. The key to beating your brain is not to focus on how much fat or whatever is in a food, but instead get used to buying healthy foods without counting their calories. If you can find a way to buy healthy items just because (making meals that include them, for example) instead of because they contain less grams of fat than another, you might just find that your meals taste better even though you’re eating healthier foods.

We Think We Don’t Have The Time To Eat Better

Most people feel their tables are at least this busy

Even if it’s not the taste of healthy foods, there always seems to be an excuse to not eat better. Most often, we blame our bad habits on a lack of time. A survey of Europeans, for example, found that the most commonly cited reason for eating poorly was that people claimed they didn’t have time to make healthy food. A similar survey in Minnesota found that almost fifty percent of participants claimed not to have the time to eat better.

C’mon, admit it – this is just pure, sweet B.S. The sheer idea is strange – after all, how much time does it take to “make” a piece of fruit as a snack? Does it take more time to prepare a banana than a bag of chips? Healthy foods are often quick to cook (or require no cooking anyway), and even those that aren’t are no more labor intensive than unhealthy options. The idea that healthy foods take more time is just in our heads.

Instead of worrying about the time it’ll take to eat better, buy healthy foods that are cheap and easy to make. Fruits are great in this respect – they’re ready to go when you want a bite to eat. Besides, even if it does take more time to prepare a good meal, isn’t it worth it to be healthy? Once you truly make the choice to make a change, any small sacrifices in time won’t even be noticed.

We Think Healthy Foods Are Too Expensive

This is a big one for many people, and is cited almost as often as a lack of time as a barrier to eating better. How can you be expected to eat healthier when health foods cost so much? We’re in the midst of a recession here – we can’t afford to splurge!

Money is a common excuse for eating poorly

Well, if you’re talking about organic or specialty foods, then yes, you’re right – these foods do cost more. But you don’t have to eat organic or from the health food section to eat better! There are a lot of ways to eat better without shelling out extra cash. Increase your intake of cheap health foods like eggs or frozen veggies. Frozen foods can often be bought in bulk and have the nifty property of not getting rotten if you don’t make them that day, so they rarely go to waste. Furthermore, you can buy most health foods as generic supermarket brands instead of the brand name items. Guess what? You’ll never notice the difference.

You can even save money by eating healthier. For example, stop buying juices, sodas and other bottled drinks and buy an aluminum water bottle instead. Almost every drink you might consume is high in calories and sugar, and even if they’re not, they’re definitely more expensive than tap water. Also, one way to make sure you don’t spend too much is to make a list. If you plan ahead and stick to it, you won’t give into the temptation of that bag of cookies just because you’re hungry. Planning ahead will also help keep you from overeating because you won’t feel a need to eat whatever has been lying around the house for awhile – and eating less will not only help with your bottom line, it’ll help with your bottom.

Why Choice Matters

The point of all of this is that we have to make the choice to eat better, not try to force ourselves to. Why is it so important that we want to eat healthier foods? Scientists have found that choice plays a big role in how our bodies react to eating something. For example, researchers from the University of Chicago found that when they told study participants that a new snack item was “tasty,” they reported feeling fuller than when they were told the exact same food item was “healthy.” In fact, the subjects who were given the healthy-labeled treat reported feeling hungrier than those who ate nothing at all. Simply telling them the item was good for them made them feel like they had to eat more food. I think we’ve all been there before: you get yourself a healthy snack, only to raid the fridge later when you’re still hungry. It’s not that the snack wasn’t enough; it’s that you had it in your head before you ate it that it wasn’t going to be satisfying. We set ourselves up all the time for this kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.

But there was a twist: when people were allowed to choose whether to try the healthy snack or the tasty one, those that chose the healthy snack freely reported feeling just as full as the others. In other words, when forced to eat healthy, the participants felt hungry; when they chose to eat healthy, they didn’t. So all you have to do to  make the most of healthy eating is actually want to eat healthier foods.

Here are some tips to help you choose a healthy diet, not box yourself into one:

1. Figure out what is keeping you from eating better. Take a month and write down what you eat every day, and how you feel when you eat. By taking notes you allow yourself to look into how you really feel about your diet. Are you begrudging healthy options? Making excuses for bad behavior? Are there healthy foods you love? These are important things to know. Once you’ve diagnosed your issues with healthy eating, you can work towards getting through those issues and simply eating better. If money is an issue, for example, you can take some time to figure out what you actually spend on groceries every month, and then pick healthier foods that don’t go over budget. You can’t fix problems until you know what they really are.

2. Focus on the positives. Don’t think about how you’re going to have to give up something you love, think about how you’re going to gain something better, like money saved by cutting out sodas. Or, reward yourself for doing well. Maybe you can use the money you save to buy a new outfit that will fit a slimming you. Or set a goal that you’ll give yourself a bonus yourself for achieving – like commit to buy a new camera when you’ve stayed on track for a few months to take pictures of your soon-to-be fantastic new body at the beach. Give yourself some motivation to really want to do this! By thinking positively, you avoid the mental traps that bring people down when trying to eat better.

3. Find healthy foods that you honestly like to eat. Don’t sit there and try to eat brussel sprouts just because you think they’re good for you! Find a vegetable or fruit that appeals to you regardless of its healthy nature. Then look into how to use that food to attract you to other foods. For example, let’s say you like pineapples. Search for some recipes that use pineapples so that you’re more interested in healthy meals – like a pineapple curry (coconut milk has some great things in it). Or pineapple salsa to go on top of baked chicken. Use the foods you like to fuel your way into healthier meals instead of forcing yourself to eat things just because they’re healthy. And don’t be afraid to try new things! You don’t know that you won’t like something until you try it.

It all comes down to making healthy options more appealing. Figure out how to do that for yourself, and you’ll be that much closer to your goals.


  1. Zeinstra, G., Koelen, M., Kok, F., & de Graaf, C. (2007). Cognitive development and children’s perceptions of fruit and vegetables; a qualitative study International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-4-30
  2. WESTCOMBE, A. (1997). Influence of Relative Fat Content Information on Responses to Three Foods Appetite, 28 (1), 49-62 DOI: 10.1006/appe.1996.0066
  3. Wansink, B. (2000). How soy labeling influences preference and taste The International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 3 (1), 85-94 DOI: 10.1016/S1096-7508(00)00031-8
  4. Kearney, J., & McElhone, S. (2007). Perceived barriers in trying to eat healthier – results of a pan-EU consumer attitudinal survey British Journal of Nutrition, 81 (S1) DOI: 10.1017/S0007114599000987
  5. Eikenberry, N., & Smith, C. (2004). Healthful eating: perceptions, motivations, barriers, and promoters in low-income minnesota communities Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104 (7), 1158-1161 DOI: 10.1016/j.jada.2004.04.023
  6. Finkelstein, S., & Fishbach, A. (2010). When Healthy Food Makes You Hungry Journal of Consumer Research DOI: 10.1086/652248