TCM Classics |This advice from Shira Lenchewski originally ran on the site in 2018, but we loved it so much we’ve decided to bring it back…
If you loved the quick cravings hack we shared from Shira a few weeks back (check it out) then you’ll love her advice below, pulled from the pages of her new book, The Food Therapist. Shira Lenchewski’s debut book is the thoughtful girl’s guide to eating well. In it, you’ll find a virtual one-on-one counseling experience with the registered dietitian that more than one of our favorite LA ladies calls food boss.
Shira helps us funnel the thoughtfulness we apply to larger life concerns down into our daily food habits. Seem obvious? Maybe on paper, but check out this excerpt from the new book and tell us it doesn’t stick with you through the next few days just before meals…
When it comes to romantic partners, we lust for someone who’s mysterious and spontaneous, but we also want a dependable teammate we can count on when life gives us lemons (and to procure feminine hygiene products in a pinch). Similarly, with our food choices, we want to avoid excess added sugar, because we’d love to look and feel our best; on the other hand, when we’re stressed at work, the pull for free office pastries is, well…palpable. We pledge to make sensible choices at restaurants in order to achieve our get-healthy goals, but at the same time we want to be able to let loose and really indulge. Oftentimes, the more immediate wants win, and it’s not because we’re all losers. It’s because, for many of us, there’s a major disconnect between the way we think about ourselves right now and the way we view ourselves in the future. Plus, the human brain is wired to have a strong penchant for sweet and starchy — it’s a survival mechanism, not a design flaw, because in primitive times it was a serious challenge for our ancestors to find enough to eat. It’s just that our modern brains haven’t gotten the memo that we now live in a world of excess.
Why You Should You Eat For Your Future Self
Between our natural drive for palatable sweet and starchy foods and the immediate gratification those foods offer, we tend to be much more focused on making ourselves feel good in the here and now than on anything else. Behavioralists call this a present bias, meaning that we often over‐focus on rewards we can reap right now and neglect to consider ones we might experience in the future. Part of the reason is that, unlike the promise of immediate perks (like the pleasure rush from a donut), down-the-road payoffs don’t always feel all that real. It’s kind of like texting and driving, which we know is horribly dangerous, and yet so many non-horrible people do it anyway: It’s not like people dismiss the potential risks involved because they’re laissez-faire about the value of life or wouldn’t care about endangering others, but in that particular moment they’re much more focused on reading or sending a text than on some unfavorable consequence that isn’t even certain to happen. On the flip side, I’d bet that same potential injury risk wouldn’t be as easy to ignore if they had been rattled by a prior texting-and-driving-related accident. Of course, the stakes aren’t nearly as high when it comes to eating, but as you can imagine, our present bias also impacts our food choices. For starters, eating a sweet or starchy treat is much more pleasure-inducing in the moment than, say, reading or sending a text message is; plus, the feel-good results from eating healthfully aren’t always instantaneous.
What’s more, when choosing foods, you’re less likely to consider the future payoffs from eating healthfully now if you don’t actually believe there’s a connection between what you eat today and how you’ll feel next month. You’re also less likely to prioritize your future get-healthy goals if you don’t actually think you have what it takes to make consistent choices to help you get there. Now, let’s pivot and focus on the future. A substantial amount of research suggests the way we think about ourselves in the future can seriously influence our day-to-day food choices. The problem is, many of us feel estranged from our future selves, so we don’t make food choices in the moment that are in our best interest for the long haul. In other words, we end up prioritizing the rush of indulging in tempting foods and ditching our healthy intentions because we fail to imagine and identify with our hoped-for selves. You can see how this contributes to the intention-action gap, making it more difficult to achieve the results you crave.
This nearsighted tendency is well documented, especially when it comes to the challenge of saving for the future. In a 2009 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, psychologist Hal Hershfield examined people’s willingness to give up immediate monetary rewards in favor of a larger but delayed payoff, but get this: There wasn’t much difference between the way people thought about their future selves and the way they thought about complete strangers. Not surprisingly, this disconnect made them less concerned with cashing in on a reward they’d have to wait for. Interestingly, though, in a groundbreaking follow-up series of studies published in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, Hershfield found that when participants interacted with virtual renderings of their older selves via virtual reality, they were much more likely to engage in behaviors — such as giving greater weight to long-term saving — that would benefit themselves in years to come. These studies were all about trading present financial gains for larger payoffs down the line; but if you’re wondering why we’re suddenly talking about 401Ks, the same principles apply to other types of behavior (especially eating).
To put this in perspective: Many of us are so fixated on what we want right now, we end up treating our future selves like total randos. We eat past-their-prime baked goods and rummage through our pantries late-night without a second thought, because without a clear connection to our healthy future selves, it’s extra challenging to resist immediate food impulses. But we’ve got to stop treating the future versions of us like strangers because the research suggests that the more actively people think about their later selves, the less likely they are to say “screw it” to their long-term goals, whether they’re financial or health-related.
As Hershfield’s research demonstrates, when you start thinking about your eventual self as an extension of your current self, it’s a lot easier to make decisions in the here-and-now that are in line with what you want for yourself later on (think of it as doing your eventual self a solid). For example, when you come home from a late night out, conjuring thoughts of your future self (even your tomorrow‐morning self) can encourage you to chug water and call it a night, rather than raiding the fridge or pantry. Instead of defaulting to a picked-over pastry during a snoozefest of a meeting, you might choose to slowly sip your coffee for the sake of helping out the forthcoming version of you.
One of the best examples of this is what I like to call the bridal phenomenon. I love working with brides because they always kill it: In my experience, brides are the most focused, steadfast, in-it-to-win-it clients around, and that’s because making healthy changes doesn’t feel like some arbitrary goal; they can imagine (often with great specificity) what consistent, healthy changes will look and feel like, so they’re much less conflicted about fleeting temptations. Brides-to-be can envision their future selves reaping the benefits of their hard work: slipping on that stunning dress and walking with confidence down the aisle. Whether you care about weddings and white dresses or not, let me tell you, that’s powerful stuff.
If you’ve ever made some real get-healthy progress in the past, you know how much more motivating it is to maintain healthy eating tweaks after you’ve already made some headway (whether that’s going down a jean size, feeling sexier naked or having more energy or more vibrant skin). After getting a small taste of how good progress feels, it’s easier to keep honoring those adjustments and turn them into enduring habits. When you can literally see and feel the results of your efforts, it’s less of a stretch to imagine how great you might feel six months or a year from now — a major source of encouragement to keep on keeping on.
Getting to Know The Future You
I know, I know. It’s not always so easy to envision a future version of yourself in the abstract. The first step is to hone in on what you really want for yourself down the line, so you can get to work translating your intentions into concrete actions. To kick off the process, give this exercise a try and see what images come to mind:
Close your eyes and picture the best possible version of yourself next year. You’re still you in all the ways that make you unique, but it’s a year later and you’ve worked through many of your get-healthy challenges, and quite frankly, you’re thriving. Zoom in on this image: How do you feel? More specifically, how would you want this best-possible, next-year version of you to feel? (The more vividly you can envision yourself this way, the better…so get detailed.) How do you want to feel when you get out of bed? When you take a shower, moisturize your bod and then slip on your clothes? How about when you walk into work? When you stand, exercise, have sex? Are you moving through the day with energy and confidence? Go ahead and close your eyes, I’ll wait…
Think about the future perks of executing your get-healthy goals: What would you like to be able to do physically next year or the following year? Many of us tend to fixate on a particular occasion — the way we’d like to look at a big event or on vacation. That’s all fine, but these are extrinsic benchmarks, so they don’t hold a lot of weight after the occasion has passed. A more effective approach is to envision the lasting benefits of your hard work and what’s in it for you — whether it’s having more energy, clearer, dewier skin or a greater sense of comfort in your body, being able to dance longer or hike faster…you get the point. Imagining these possibilities makes your future self dynamic — a true extension of you — so you’re less inclined to dismiss your next-year goals when you’re faced with the lure of an instantly gratifying treat. Like my brides discovered, the more closely you can connect to yourself in the future, the less conflicted you’ll feel about eating in ways that will help you attain and maintain your big-picture goals.
Our day-to-day relationship with food involves balancing the tradeoffs between our long-term pursuits and immediate wants, which are often in conflict. For example, most people want to look and feel better — they want to feel more confident, more vibrant, have more energy — and, at the same time, they also want the donut at the staff meeting and an extra serving of pasta at book club. But I want to make one thing crystal clear: Having a healthy relationship with food doesn’t mean always choosing the eating behavior that supports the long-lens goal over the immediate want (because let’s be real, that sounds like a total drag). Instead, it’s about having the ability to pause and consider the options at hand and then make a conscious choice. For example: Do I really want this donut? If the answer is yes, then put it on a plate, enjoy it slowly, and then move on without stressing about the freaking donut for the rest of the day.
Excerpted from the book THE FOOD THERAPIST by Shira Lenchewski. Copyright © 2018 by Shira Lenchewski. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.
Want more self-care advice from the Food Therapist herself?
Check out our fave stories with Shira here and here.
Great reminder about taking the time to consider your habits and diet. Articulately written!