11 Unintentional Habits That Wreck a Healthy Eating Plan

Darya Rose
by Darya Rose
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11 Unintentional Habits That Wreck a Healthy Eating Plan

In the world of nutrition, most experts agree: There’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods. Moderation and consistency over perfection is key to establishing a healthy relationship with food and reaching your goals.

But it is possible to have some bad habits surrounding the way you eat — whether you’ve grown accustomed to dinner dates with Netflix, you’re a midnight snacker, or you’re simply not making enough time for meals throughout your workday. Fortunately, creating positive habits (and, in turn, an even healthier diet) isn’t as hard as you think.

Registered dieticians share the common mistakes they see their clients making and how to put together a solid nutritional routine to instill healthy habits for life.

Unintentional Habits That Wreck a Healthy Eating Plan

It may seem obvious, but you aren’t going to cook at home if you don’t have anything to make. Getting groceries is a huge pain point for many people, and so they tend to avoid it. But sometimes to build the habit all you need to do is shift your schedule slightly so you can go when it’s less crowded, or find a new store that offers a more pleasant experience. Since grocery shopping is essential to be healthy, it’s worth investing some effort into making sure it’s something you will actually do.

The fix: To make trips to the store more efficient, plan your meals ahead of time and write down a list of exactly what you need. Don’t forget to shop the middle of the grocery store, too, for pantry items (see #2).

While keeping a stocked pantry is related to grocery shopping, it serves a slightly different purpose so it’s worth mentioning separately. If the only fresh item you have is an onion, a stocked pantry is enough to get dinner on the table and help you cut back on takeout. Chances are, though, you also have a zucchini, an aging crown of broccoli and a few eggs. It doesn’t take much to turn those things into a delicious meal.

The fix: Stock your pantry with healthy picks like dried grainsbeans and lentils, canned tomatoes, dried herbs, coconut milk, tuna, salmon, sardines and even pasta. Extend this logic to your freezer and keep a supply of frozen veggies, lean meats and leftovers and it’s even easier.

It might surprise you that only 9% percent of Americans meet their veggie requirements every day. Under-consuming these powerful plant-foods is a serious disservice to your health. “Vegetables offer a myriad of benefits from anti-inflammatory and immune-protecting antioxidants, to gut-healthy fiber, as well as various micronutrients ranging from vitamin A to zinc,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD. Putting more veggies on your plate can also help crowd out less nutritious choices to support your weight-loss goals.

The fix: Start every day with vegetables: savory oatsscrambles and breakfast burritos are all great options. “Many people don’t eat their first veggie until dinner time — and then it’s just a small portion on the side of their plate, if that,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN. By fitting vegetables in early on — and then with every meal and snack (hummus with veggies, snow peas with tahini, a side salad, stir-fry, veggie pasta dishes, tacos) — you build them into your day from the start, naturally allowing you to fit more in (and making eating them a tasty habit).

If you’ve ever had an out-of-season tomato, you know it’s bland flavor can’t hold a candle to a juicy, melt-in-your mouth ripe summer tomato. Discovering seasonal vegetables can be life-changing and help veggie-haters add more to their plates.

The fix: Try shopping at your local farmers market. Not only is in-season produce tastier, it’s often more nutritious since veggies lose nutrients the longer they sit on shelves or travel. It’s worth spending extra time and money to find good produce if you want to have any chance of actually eating it.

It’s common to eat while mindlessly scrolling through social media, checking your email or watching a TV show. The problem is “it’s very easy to overeat when you eat in front of a screen,” says Ilyse Schapiro, RD, a New York and Connecticut-based dietitian“When we’re distracted while eating, it takes longer for our bodies to register we’re full. We also don’t taste the food as well because we are more focused on what’s on the screen than on our plate.”

The fix: Make mealtime something you look forward to. Leave the screens off and instead sit down with a loved one to share a meal or try lighting candles to spice up your table setting. Pro tip: Enjoy your food more by chewing slowly and embracing the flavors, suggests Schapiro. This can help keep you present, which can ultimately prevent you from overeating. Your shows will still be there.

Skipping meals isn’t doing much for your productivity — it can leave you feeling sluggish, moody, hungry and even slow your metabolism, says Schapiro. “Your body is literally playing catch up.”

The fix: Schedule your meals like you would meetings — breakfast within 60–90 minutes of waking up and then meals to follow every 3–4 hours, suggests Shapiro. If you’re prone to skipping them, placing meals (even if it’s just a reminder to eat lunch) in your calendar much like you would can’t-miss events ensures they’ll always have a place in your day-to-day schedule. Another great strategy: Dedicate one weekend day to meal prepping. You can start slowly and prep the meal you’re most likely to skip, such as breakfast, and go from there.

It’s easy for hydration to fall by the wayside when you’re busy with work, exercising, parenting and eating healthy. However, if you’re dehydrated, your body can confuse thirst for hunger, leading you to overeat (not to mention dehydration can leave you feeling dizzy, tired, confused and can cause headaches), says Schapiro.

The fix: Invest in a water bottle you like (preferably one that keeps your drinks cold all day long). Not only are they better for the environment, but having a visual cue can also encourage you to keep sipping. If you’re bored of plain water, seltzer is just as hydrating (so long as the bubbles don’t bother you). You can also add lemon or other fruits to infuse extra flavor, helping you keep up with your goals. To make sure you’re hitting your hydration goals, consider tracking your hydration with an app like MyFitnessPal.

While takeout food can be convenient and enjoyable, over-relying on it can make it difficult to feel your healthiest, says Moskovitz. “Not only are portions typically larger when restaurant-sourced, but the amount of oil, butter, salt and added sugar in the meal can be significantly higher than what you would prepare at home.”

The fix: Befriend your freezer and start meal prepping to cut back on takeout meals. “It might sound like a lot of work but it’ll keep you from feeling like you need to cook all the time or dialing up your local pizza place,” says Moskovitz. When your freezer is packed with frozen fruit, veggies, lean meats and leftovers, you’ll always have options to choose from, too. “Making larger quantities you can portion out for a few days will keep things stress-free and help you on your wellness journey.” Then, cut takeout to two or three times a week, make sure your picks have plenty of protein and vegetables in them (don’t be afraid to ask for swaps), and if you have extras, save them for leftovers or to mix in with your meal prep.

It’s not easy to admit, but how many times have you decided not to cook just because the kitchen was a mess? Mustering up the desire to cook after a long day is hard enough without having another huge, unpleasant task in front of you that needs to be taken care of first. And chances are nobody in your household is any more excited to do it than you are.

If you aren’t careful, a messy kitchen can become the unconscious reason for days of unhealthy food choices. That means cleaning the kitchen is one of those things that you need to make yourself (or someone) do before it’s time to cook again.

The fix: Learn to clean as you cook, so by the time the meal is over, there are only a few remaining dishes to clear, and the task isn’t so daunting. It gets done the same night, and the next day you’re rested and ready to start again.

The mantra “eat less and move more” is touted as the end-all-be-all for getting health and losing weight. The truth is, it’s much more nuanced, and factors like stresshormones and genetics all play a role. There are dozens of subconscious reasons for food choices. One we haven’t mentioned yet is being really hungry, which is what happens when your body needs fuel.

If you over-exercise, your hunger levels can lead you to reach for large portions of calorie-dense foods to feel satiated. Over time, this can lead to weight gain. Unless you’re training to compete at a serious level, there’s no good reason to push yourself to extremes when working out.

The fix: Being active is enough for good health, and it should be whatever type of exercise you enjoy. If you’re doing it for pleasure instead of punishment, you won’t use it as an excuse to “reward” yourself with a super burrito.

Skimping on sleep not only leaves you feeling tired and in a brain fog the next day, but it can also negatively affect your waistline. A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found people (particularly women) with worse sleep quality (or a lack of sleep) ate more — including more foods with added sugar — throughout the day than those who slept well. Sleep deprivation can mess with hormones responsible for regulating hunger levels, leading you to overdo it the next day.

The fix: Take your sleep seriously and aim for at least 7–9 hours a night. Paying attention to your sleep environment (a cool room, no blue light from electronics) and what you eat or drink before sleep can make a big difference. Try this pre-bedtime routine to help you wind down at night and get quality zzz’s.

Originally published September 2015, updated with additional reporting by Cassie Shortsleeve

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About the Author

Darya Rose
Darya Rose

Darya Rose, Ph.D, is the author of Foodist, and creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME’s 50 Best Websites. She eats amazing things daily and hasn’t even considered going a diet since 2007. For a free starter kit to help you get healthy and lose weight without dieting, sign up for the Summer Tomato weekly newsletter.


13 responses to “11 Unintentional Habits That Wreck a Healthy Eating Plan”

  1. Great points… Let’s take #1 further and add on food shopping hungry.

    • Avatar Stepherella says:

      Ooohhhh yesss this is deadly I have so many times ended up with more junk (empry calories) and less good (vitamin dense healthy) foods.

  2. Avatar MonicaP says:

    I’d add not cleaning and organizing the refrigerator .. once everything is clean and I can find the fresh stuff that I purchased, I’m more interested in reaching for healthy items.


  3. Avatar I ♥ sparkly things says:

    I am kind of shocked at the comment about So Cal having crappy fruits and vegetables…I’ve lived here my whole life and have bought straight off the farm/same day as picked, seasonal fruits and vegetables, at farm stands and farmers markets, my whole life. Seriously, we are one of the most plentiful regions in the area of fabulous seasonal fruits and veggies in the world. We are spoiled at the bounty offered to us. How did you not know this living here if this is your business? Not a criticism, just a question. I’m stunned.

    • Avatar Adam Cole says:

      She said it was her experience while growing up so I’m assuming she wasn’t a “foodist” quite yet, nor the one in charge of shopping. If it was all industrial Red Delicious apples and Chilean avocados sourced from a big supermarket in mid-February, then I think I know exactly what she means by ‘uninspiring’. The bounty is there, but you still have to seek it out.

      • Avatar I ♥ sparkly things says:

        Sure, that makes total sense. I bet you’re right. My folks were big on seasonal stuff so they starting taking me from a young age to buy from the farm. I supposed had they not I may have missed how plentiful it is here too.

    • Avatar Aw Shucks says:

      Lots of the food in central/southern CA is grown with water stolen from Tribes (Tribal compacts/treaties) in N. CA. . . . so the moral of the story is there is no longer a Garden of Eden, and eating anything (particularly plants grown out of season or in climates sustained only by water pumped from elsewhere) has an moral and environmental cost.

  4. Avatar Liane says:

    Frozen veggies are the best. You can get them all year round, they tend to maintain their vitamin goodness due to being flash frozen almost immediately after being picked and you don’t worry about them going bad. A great way to have food on hand to cook easily.

    • Avatar Paul Preibisius says:

      Another helpful element can be veggies that are maskable or adaptable. Broccoli slaw for example– is something that I can incorporate in a nice stir fry or salad that (especially on the stir fry side) even someone not partial to broccoli will eat without much issue. I’ll throw cauliflower in the food processor, mix it with ground turkey I’ve pre-cooked, sauce, and seasonings, zap it in the micro and it all blends to where it works as a nice meat extender and veggie source in one.

  5. Avatar Paul Preibisius says:

    Another element I’d say that can be important– focusing solely on grocery staples without thought to how they’ll be utilized. Having a well stocked array of spices and other accessory items to be able to turn that bag of frozen chicken breasts and veggies into multiple tasty dishes of choice simplifies things considerably. Fun hint– canned pumpkin or plain Greek yogurt make great dressing or stir fry sauce “base” components that gives it some body without the calories of oil and is the taste is subtle enough that you can push it in almost any direction you wish.

  6. Avatar Cheryl Thomas says:

    #5 Not Cleaning the Dirty Kitchen that’s my downfall. I’m going to try to do what you suggest – clean as you go. Thank you for your advice.

  7. Avatar Carol kersting says:

    The advice about shopping on non peak time is excellent. I get off work at 11 at nite and shop then and also I started going to a different store because it not as busy it has a totally different atmosphere and it is a lot cleaner. This enables me to take my time read labels and not make impulse choices. I always share with people when you do get into the habit of eating fresh fruits and vegetables
    That the practice of going more often because you can,t stock up and stay fresh that you can grab staples as you need them and hour long shopping is eliminated something I think every busy on the go person likes to avoid like the plague.

  8. Avatar Helen Hines says:

    I did eat allot of vegetables
    I mean allot 5-6 days a week but after eating tons of greens for 6 months
    straight it got me sick I don’t mean sick of eating vegetables but got sick
    literally from eating too much but I didn’t know I was eating too much of the
    greens. I don’t know why I was feeling so tired all of a sudden, felt very
    tired all day long even with 7-8 hrs of good sleep each night and I was on a
    roll losing weight and feeling great before I started to change. The more I
    exercised and ate healthy I kept getting more tired. I was feeling confused and
    was starting to feel unmotivated, then out of the blue my friend sends me this
    article about too much consumption of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and rich
    green vegetables will cause you to feel run down extreme fatigue. I said to myself…say what??? Although I
    ate variety of different types of vegetables my main 2 were broccoli and
    cauliflower which was the 2 biggest culprit. When I found that out I stopped
    eating vegetables all together I was so frustrated and felt so discouraged from
    trying to do right, what I thought I was suppose to do but yet back fired on
    me. I eventually felt better and got back to normal after I had stopped eating too much of those
    particular vegetables, now I’m eating more varieties of greens but the bad news
    is from falling of the track I’ve gained all the weight I had lost and have to
    start all over again. I am so tired of the yo-yo dieting and being so weak and inconsistent
    in trying to stay on track for good and not let every little bump on the read
    derail me….. ;(((

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