If you're trying to eat healthy in university, there are a lot of forces working against you: A tight budget, limited choices in the university food court and, of course, your friends and roomies. Here's some help eating well around your Pac-Man roommate. Illustration by: Sam Woolley. Images by Disposable Dreams, bgreenlee, Picture Perfect Pose.
Your first thought might be to just ignore them and live your life. Well, you should, but the eating habits and choices of people around you can have a huge effect on your own, or at least present situations where you face many, many temptations. You can't control (or kick out) your roommate, but you do, however, have control over yourself and your living space. So skip the passive aggressive notes and "that's really bad for you" comments, and start by engineering your environment.
Turn Your Living Space Into a Temptation Free Zone
Every time you pass by your roommate's junk food cache, it's natural to feel like that bag of chips is calling out to you. It's not just you. The mere presence of something delicious out in the open can cue a yearning for it, even if you're not hungry. The solution is simple though: Put yourself in a better food environment. Start with the out of sight, out of mind approach with your roommate's junk food stash. By removing the temptations, you'll be less likely to want to munch mindlessly, or even to buy your own snacks to munch on.
These are all manipulations of your environment that encourage you to avoid binge or unhealthy eating options. Using smaller plates and bowls, keeping healthy foods (like a bowl of fresh fruit) front and centre and drinking from tall, thin glasses all sneak in ways for you to make healthier choices or eat or drink less by default. They're based on food psychology research, and they work without costing you additional willpower or energy. If you're interested in reading more about the many ways our surrounding environment can help or sabotage our health efforts, check out Slim By Design, written by Brian Wansink, a consumer behaviour and nutritional science researcher at Cornell University.
In this case, we obviously wouldn't recommend you do an epic purge of your roommate's stash. It's not your food to throw away. Instead, come to a compromise, explaining that of course he can eat whatever he pleases, but it would make things easier for both of you if the junk food is kept out of plain sight and stashed away in drawers or bins. This way you don't see it, and he still gets his snacks.
This idea works the other way, too. Keep healthy snacks, like fruit and vegetables or even chewing gum in plain sight and within easy reach. If your roommate is munching away while you're in the room and you're tempted to snack, you have better alternatives.
Remember 'Healthy Eating' Doesn't Need to Be So Rigid
It's also worth noting that "healthy" doesn't have to be so specific, and demonising foods is a recipe for diet failure anyway. Consider flexible dieting, or the If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) approach to food instead. It's the idea of making anything, including ice cream, burgers and cheesecake, fit a healthy eating plan, as long as it's well within your personal kilojoule limits and in line with your overall health goals. It's something I personally follow and have great results with. The biggest benefit is actually psychological.
IIFYM freed me from the idea of "can't have foods". With most diets, especially fad diets, certain foods are completely off the table or "forbidden". You can't have carbs; you can't have dairy. This restriction leads to feelings of deprivation, a desire to "cheat" and finally full-on binge episodes of the very foods you "can't have", followed by a downward spiral of guilt. Being flexible and keeping my goals in mind -- not an arbitrary list of haves and have-nots -- I can have something, but it doesn't mean I have to have it. I'm able to truly enjoy the ideas of moderation and balance with IIFYM, guilt-free.
This flexibility also gives you mental breathing room with your roommate, who might munch on chips or chocolate every day or even -- bless her soul -- offer up some of her grandma's famous chocolate chip cookies from time to time. This flexibility means you can enjoy a cookie without stressing out.
Of course, to make this method work, you have to be quite meticulous about tracking your food, and making sure your treats are just that -- treats. Try it out and see if it works for you.
Set Clear Boundaries for Yourself
Sometimes you just have to draw a hard line on the things you will and won't do. You can (and should) never touch your roommate's food, because that would be stealing. On the other hand, if your roommate is actually offering junk food, you can invoke the "F*ck Yes!" Rule.
Here's how it works: Whenever you're tempted to eat something, take a step back and ask yourself, "Is this something you really, really want and will not regret having it 15 minutes from now?" If that piece of cake doesn't make your heart (or stomach) scream "F*ck Yes!", then you should pass.
This rule is similar to why you should plan your cheat meals in terms of risk versus reward. Both ideas teach you to be mindful of how much you actually enjoy the food you eat, instead of eating because it's there. You also learn to predict how you might feel about your choice afterwards. At the same time, both ideas take practise, so don't fret if you can't rein in those cravings immediately.
It's not easy living with someone who seems to be inadvertently trying to derail your health efforts, but it gets easier with time and practise. When your resolve and willpower are put to the test, remind yourself why you started doing this and remember that it's also OK to mess up, too.