Want to change the way you eat? Here's how to do it (and it's not a smartphone app)

Recipe apps are great for inspiration, but they won't help you make long-lasting changes to the way you eat

Man eating an apple outdoors
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're thinking about changing the foods you eat, it's tempting to download a smartphone recipe app. There's often plenty of inspiration, but researchers have found that these apps might not help you change your diet for good.

Whether you're cutting back on meat and want more plant-based inspiration to go alongside one of the best vegan cookbooks, or want to switch to the Mediterranean diet for its purported benefits, apps are a convenient and accessible place to start.

But a new report published in the journal Nutrients has found that these apps might not help you create long-term sustainable changes to your diet. The team analyzed a collection of apps promoting the Mediterranean diet for the study.

The Mediterranean diet is a popular, scientifically-backed way to stay healthy through the years and is based on the types of foods you'd find in Mediterranean countries, like Italy and Greece.

The researchers found that 91% of the apps offered recipe ideas, more than half helped you plan meals, and almost all of them were free. However, very few included any behavioral change techniques (BCTs). 

Like with any habit, the challenge is to make it stick. But the apps didn't offer much in the way of reminders, rewards, feedback, tracking, goal setting, or ways to encourage accountability.

Habit-forming tips

So, while recipe apps are a great way to find new meals to try, they don't help you create long-term sustainable changes to your diet. Fortunately, there are ways to build a new food habit and make it last.

1. Start small

We eat to fuel our bodies, but food is not just a source of energy. The smells of cooking certain foods trigger memories, and eating a meal is a social and cultural event. So it's tough to make dramatic changes to our diet in one go.

Instead of switching everything at once, try more minor changes instead. If you want to follow the Mediterranean diet but enjoy regular snacking, try a handful of nuts or some olives instead of other small snacks.

Over time, you can make more of these little changes. This is known as 'habit stacking', forming many smaller routines and nudges that gradually combine to create more significant and sustainable change. 

2. Eat mindfully

When you're experimenting with how to eat healthily, you may be trying different foods than you're used to. You might find you're tempted to choose something familiar instead, but mindful eating can help.

When was the last time you really paid attention to the food when it was in your mouth? Foods have different textures, especially when you've chewed them for a while, or tastes that aren't immediately apparent.

Many of us eat while doing other tasks like watching TV or scrolling our phones. When you're trying a new meal, take 10 minutes to sit and experience the food without distractions and see how it makes you feel.

3. Make a plan

You might just want to sit down with your favorite meal and relax at the end of a long day. Following these older habits can feel less mentally taxing in the moment, but there are ways to ease yourself into a new way of eating.

The key is to plan out what you'll eat over a week and buy the food you need in advance. This way, you've already done most of the work, so you just need to open up the recipe and start cooking.

It's not always possible to find kitchen space in the office to cook lunch or breakfast from scratch. Batch cooking when you have time (like at the weekend or in the evening) means you'll always have something convenient to hand.

There will always be moments when you're short on time, or don't have the right ingredients available to make the meal you're after. For those times, keep some of the best fish oil supplements at home so you can stay topped up on Omega-3. 

Omega-3 is a nutrient we can only really get from our diet, and is found primarily in oily fish. There are many benefits of fish oil, including maintaining a healthy heart and protecting your mental wellbeing. 

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.