Extreme Makeover: Kitchen Edition

5 Feb

Extreme Makeover: Kitchen Edition

By Tim Skwiat, MEd, CSCS, Pn1

In Switch, an influential book on behavior change, brothers Chip and Dan Heath conjured an image of a person riding an elephant to describe the challenge of the change-making progress. In short, the Heath brothers’ metaphor translates like this:

  • The rider is the voice of reason. He is the “logical” brain that “knows” what to do and tries to control the powerful elephant, something he’s successful at doing…for a very short period of time.
  • The elephant represents raw, powerful emotions. It is physically strong and overpowering, and it is both figuratively and literally significantly larger than the rider. At some point or another, the elephant—our impulses and deep emotional needs—overcomes the rider.

With that in mind, both the rider—or, the “thinky” brain—and the elephant—the primal, emotional brain—both need to be “addressed” appropriately along the path to behavior change.

Speaking of path, the Heath brothers also discuss its significance in the change-making process. Specifically, whether the elephant realizes it or not, it is constrained to a certain path, or environment. In fact, the elephant’s path has an even greater effect on its actions than the “smart” rider.

In tangible terms, this means that in order to build better nutrition habits, you need to consider your environment and shape your path. While your environment can be influenced by social (e.g., people), cultural (e.g., expectations), and intellectual (e.g., beliefs) factors, we’re going to focus our attention on your physical environment—notably, your kitchen.

According to nutrition coach extraordinaire Dr. John Berardi, the “first law” of good nutrition is as follows:

 If a food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate, will eventually eat it.

This is particularly discerning for a number of reasons, and it gives powerful insight into how strongly your environment can affect your eating habits and health goals. This law can be taken at surface level (e.g., if a trigger food is around, it could lead to trouble), or it can take it a step further (e.g., if your living mates aren’t “on board” with your goals, then you could be set up for failure).

What’s also neat about this law is that it has a corollary:

If a healthy food is in your house or possession, either you, someone you love, or someone you marginally tolerate will eventually eat it. 

With all of that being said, you can see that you have the power to shape your path toward healthy eating habits and good nutrition behaviors by taking a look at your environment (i.e., kitchen) to identify (and trash) non-nutritious “junk” and “trigger” foods that promote overeating and poor eating habits and derail you from the path to optimal health, body composition, and performance. Likewise, this same process involves making sure that you have the nutrient-dense, health-promoting foods you need to support your goals, as well as the right tools to prepare them in a nutritious manner.

With that in mind, you are now the star of your own reality show: Extreme Makeover: Kitchen Edition!

This process can vary from person to person based on a number of factors (e.g., nutrition knowledge, socioeconomic background, roommates and family members), and a good place to start is with the following assessment:

PN Kitchen Makeover Questionnaire

This questionnaire helps to give you an idea of where your kitchen sits on the spectrum of makeover-ness, and it gives you an idea of the types of foods that you’ll find in a healthy kitchen—along with those that you won’t—as well as the tools that you should have on hand to make sure that you have the capability to prepare healthy meals. In addition, it can give you some feedback about your food-related behaviors (e.g., grocery shopping, prepare foods in advance) and thought processes.

Once you’ve completed the Kitchen Makeover Questionnaire, it’s a good idea to start to get an idea of what foods will stay (and why) and what foods must go (and why). One very effective way to do this is to create a “trigger” list of red, yellow, and green light foods. You’ll start by identifying the red and yellow light foods because these are the items you’ll want to get out of the house. Then, we’ll move on to the green light foods, which will be the locus of your kitchen restocking efforts.

Red light foods are the obvious “junk foods” as well as foods that tend to prompt overeating. While the latter may be a bit more unique to you—for me, it’s nut butters—the former may include:

  • Baked goods
  • Cakes
  • Candy
  • Cheese spreads
  • Chips
  • Chocolate
  • Condiments
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Diet soda
  • Dips
  • Ice cream
  • Instant foods
  • Frozen dinners
  • Fruit snacks
  • Margarine
  • Processed meats
  • Salad dressings
  • Sauces
  • Soda
  • Sweetened drinks
  • Take-out leftovers
  • Vegetable oils
  • Alcohol is negotiable

Yellow light foods are a bit less obvious junk foods, and we like to call these “trick foods.” These foods are generally masqueraded as healthy, but they are far cry from whole, minimally processed foods. Some examples include:

  • Bagels
  • Breads
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Dried Fruit
  • Energy bars
  • Frozen yogurt
  • Fruit-flavored yogurt
  • Fruit juice
  • Granola bars
  • Light/fat-free yogurt
  • Organic “junk” food
  • Pretzels
  • Regular peanut butter
  • Trail mix

As we’ll talk about below, you don’t have to throw out everything. The makeover—just like your body transformation—is a journey. If you’re not ready to toss something, that’s okay. This is a dynamic process, and you’ll just want to continue to be aware (i.e., notice and name) of your relationship with any red or yellow light foods that you keep.

Some people find that getting rid of a couple of things each week—and displacing them with green light foods—works really well. They hold onto their lists of red and yellow light foods, and they cross them off as they go (and they don’t buy more of them).

Green light foods are those that are nutritious and health-promoting, and these are the foods with which you’ll want to stock your kitchen. Along these lines, the corollary to the “first law” of good nutrition says that having healthy foods available to prepare and eat is just as important as getting rid of the “junk” food.

The Kitchen Makeover Questionnaire is a great stepping stone to help you stock your kitchen with nutritious foods, and along with that, the following list may help you with this portion of your kitchen makeover:

Superfood Reference Guide

That guide is a great start, and it emphasizes that you can’t go wrong with whole, minimally processed foods. In addition, the following checklist provides some additional options, along with some coaching tips for navigating the aisles of the grocery store:

Super Market Survival Guide

If at any point during this process you’re feeling a little ambivalent or doubtful, that’s okay. It’s completely normal to want to hang onto that bag of potato chips like a life-saving flotation device or be a bit indecisive about throwing out and “wasting” food.

In the case of the former, this doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” situation, and you can revert back to your red, yellow, and green light lists to establish a makeover continuum. Remember, this is your journey, and you have control over shaping the path.

If you choose not to remove something now, simply notice how you respond by keeping it around. You might find that the bag of chips is more like an anchor and less like a flotation device. Shaping the path is a dynamic process, and you may find that you add and subtract foods and tools over time, as well as maneuver your kitchen for optimal food prep.

In terms of “wasting” food, you might ask yourself a couple of questions:

  • Is this really “food” in the first place? It’s likely that most of the things that you’ll be tossing out are mere resemblances of food-related items with little to no health-redeeming qualities. With that in mind, you’re not technically wasting any “food.”
  • Also, you might ask yourself, what would be more of a waste: getting rid of the cheap “food” or ingesting it and allowing it to work against your health and body composition goals by increasing body fat and inflammation?

Remember, this is a process, but it’s an important one. Going back to the metaphor at the beginning, the elephant is stubborn and powerful, and yet it is constrained to its path, which has a much greater effect on the direction it travels (i.e., behavior) than the rider.

By modifying the path (e.g., the kitchen makeover), the job of the rider is considerably easier. Although you may experience some feelings of ambivalence and contradiction initially, changes in your surrounding environment relieve the rider and help to motivate the elephant. Ultimately, shaping your path makes it easier to adopt healthy nutrition behaviors and eating habits, and therefore, optimize your health, body composition, and performance.

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