How Your “Future Self” Can Help Keep Healthy Food Habits on Track
From the science behind fermented foods to the truth about every new-wave sweetener we could think of, LA-based registered dietitian Shira Lenchewski, M.S., R.D. is one of the most knowledgeable people we know. But more often than not, we need Shira’s expertise to address our emotional issues around food, and give us some real talk on solving problems that can’t be answered with a straight-up nutritional profile—for instance, why we have trouble making healthy choices in the moment.
Here she explains the concept of the “future self”—which you can read more about in her just-published book, The Food Therapist—and how it can help us connect with our bodies in the moment, and make good food choices for life. Spoiler alert: This doesn’t mean you always have to pass up the doughnut.
A Q&A with Shira Lenchewski, M.S., R.D.
What does it mean to imagine your “future self,” as it relates to our relationship to food?
Our day-to-day relationship with food involves balancing the trade-offs between our long-term goals and our immediate wants, which are often in conflict. Most people want to look and feel their best three months…six months…one year from now, and at the same time, they also want the doughnut at the staff meeting and an extra serving of pasta at dinner.
I want to make one thing crystal clear: Having a healthy relationship with food, and being healthy in general doesn’t mean always choosing the long-term goal over the immediate want. That said, you won’t be able to achieve those big-picture get-healthy goals if you have the doughnut every day, so you have to be willing to forgo some of those right-now wants some of the time, if achieving your long-term goals is important to you.
“I want to make one thing crystal clear: Having a healthy relationship with food, and being healthy in general doesn’t mean always choosing the long-term goal over the immediate want.”
Despite these long-lens health goals being important to us, often the more immediate wants win. Behavioralists call this a present bias, meaning that we tend to over-focus on rewards we can reap instantly, and neglect to consider ones we might experience down the road. 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.
What does that mean for our food choices?
This nearsighted tendency is well documented, especially when it comes to the challenge of saving for the future. Much of the research has been performed by psychologist Hal Hershfield, who examined people’s willingness to give up immediate cash rewards in favor of a larger but delayed payoff. What he found completely blew my mind: There wasn’t much difference between the way people thought about their future selves and the way they thought about complete strangers.
“Many of us treat our future selves like total randos, so we often make food choices in the moment that aren’t in our best interest for the long haul.”
This disconnect made them less interested in rewards they’d have to wait for. Interestingly, a follow-up series of studies found that when participants interacted with renderings of their older selves via virtual reality, they were much more likely to engage in behaviors that would benefit themselves in years to come. These studies were all about trading present financial gains for larger monetary payoffs down the line, but the same principles apply when it comes to our eating behavior.
The takeaway: Many of us treat our future selves like total randos, so we often make food choices in the moment that aren’t in our best interest for the long haul. We eat past-their-prime baked goods, and rummage our pantries late at night without a second thought, because without a clear connection to our healthy, thriving future selves, it’s really challenging to resist fleeting food impulses. But the more actively we think about our future selves, the easier it becomes to pass up the immediate satisfaction of acting impulsively on food cravings, in favor of long-term, feel-good payoffs.
How do we use an image of our future selves to make good day-to-day choices in the moment?
As the research demonstrates, when you start thinking about your future 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 forthcoming 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 upcoming you.
Can you walk us through how to create this version of ourselves?
It’s all about being able to vividly picture and connect to a realistic, thriving version of yourself in the future. To get the process started, think about:
What would it feel like to see your healthy future self in action?
What kinds of food-related obstacles do you face now that you want to conquer?
What get-healthy goals do you aspire to achieve?
Beyond how you look, how would you like to feel and move in your body?
“Imagining these possibilities makes your future self dynamic—a true extension of you—so you’re less inclined to dismiss your goals.”
If you’re a parent or you’d like to be a parent someday, another helpful way to connect to the future is to imagine yourself adopting one of the healthy eating habits you’ve been struggling with, and then picture your children or future children embracing that habit, too. For many of us, prioritizing our kids’ (even our unborn kids’) futures can help shift the stakes, and encourage us to reevaluate the way we think about tempting food choices in the moment.
Why are brides so good at this?
Brides are often my most focused clients—I believe it’s because making healthy changes doesn’t feel like some arbitrary goal to them. Since they can imagine (often with great specificity) what consistent, healthy changes will look and feel like, 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 dress and walking with confidence down the aisle. Whether you care about weddings and dresses or not, let me tell you, it’s powerful stuff.
Imagining these possibilities makes your future self dynamic—a true extension of you—so you’re less inclined to dismiss your goals when you’re faced with the lure of an instantly gratifying treat. Like my brides do instinctually, 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 those big-picture goals.
Shira Lenchewski, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian, author, and nationally recognized nutrition expert with a private practice in Los Angeles. Pulling from her clinical nutrition Master’s degree at NYU and residency at Mount Sinai, Shira has a meaningful understanding of the intersection of food, biochemistry, and physiology; but she prefers to ditch the white lab coat. In her debut book The Food Therapist, Shira shares her refreshingly modern and sanity-preserving food therapy approach, helping readers hone the skills needed to put their get-healthy intentions into daily action, such as planning ahead wisely, tuning into their fullness cues, and harnessing willpower.