Interview: Darya Rose of Summer Tomato on Mindful Eating, Body Image, Cooking, and Building Healthy Habits

This week’s guest is Darya Rose, the proprietor of Summer Tomato.  Darya famously describes herself not as a diet or fitness expert- in fact, she hates the word “diet,” which she’ll explain in this interview.  Instead she describes herself as a foodist- someone who loves the food they eat, enjoys cooking, and builds a healthy lifestyle by prioritizing enjoyment first and foremost.
Darya’s writing focuses almost entirely on the food side of things, and emphasizes building one or two simple, high-impact habits at a time- particularly keystone habits, which have positive effects on many areas of life, and tend to lead automatically to improvements in other habits.  She also occasionally publishes guest articles by sexy geniuses with mesmerizingly shiny heads.
In this interview, Darya shares some of her strategies for becoming a mindful eater, building healthier habits, becoming an avid cook, and building a healthier relationship with food.
Darya’s social media profiles:
Twitter: @summertomato
Facebook: /summertomato
Insta: @daryarose
2019 Update: I conducted a second interview with Darya which builds on what we discussed in this interview.  You can read it here

Your first rule is “Don’t diet.”  How do you define dieting, why are you against it, and what do you do differently?

I define dieting as intentionally restricting food for the sake of weight loss. I’m against it because it doesn’t work as a long-term strategy for weight loss, since humans are incapable forcing ourselves to suffer indefinitely. It inevitably fails, and more often than not leaves significant physical and psychological damage in its wake that ultimately leads to weight gain. A much better approach is to find healthful behaviors you enjoy and turn them into regular habits. Add up enough of those and good health follows along easily.

Okay, so you define dieting as restricting food to lose weight, but then you say it involves forcing yourself to suffer.  Do the two necessarily go hand in hand?  

To be clear, you need to eat less to lose weight. The question is whether or not you personally consider your actions a sacrifice and if they require willpower. There are many ways to eat less without resorting to willpower. Mindful eating, for example, helps food be naturally more satisfying so you tend to eat less without deliberate intention. Similarly, vegetables are very filling and satisfying, but also very low calorie. That’s the sweet spot where you want to be in if weight loss is one of your goals.

How did you get started with Summer Tomato? What were you doing before?  

I launched Summer Tomato when I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D in neuroscience at UCSF. I launched it because I had finally solved my own weight loss struggles I had been dealing with since childhood. The approach I discovered was so different from everything I had learned by the dieting industry I felt like I had a duty to tell people.

How do most of your readers find you?  

Guest posts on other sites is probably the most common way, besides Google of course.

Why exactly are you so against “processed” foods?  What exactly does the processing of food do that makes it so much less healthy?

It’s unclear exactly why processed foods are so problematic, although there is no shortage of theories. Some say the processing removes important nutrients. Some say it is the added chemicals and preservatives. Some think it’s that the macronutrient ratios (e.g. carbs, protein, fat) have changed for the worse. Some say processed foods are hyperpalatable as a result of added salt, sugar and fat, and cause people to overeat. Others blame GMOs.
The truth is we don’t have a clear answer, and it is likely a combination of reasons. The good news is that we don’t need to understand why processed foods are bad for us in order to avoid eating them.

What are the simplest, most reliable ways to build greater awareness of your health habits?

This is actually a rather profound question. You’re assuming that most of our habits are unconscious, which is true. A huge step in changing your habits requires knowing what they are, what triggers them and what our brain’s goal is when we do them. This requires substantial mindfulness which, by definition, is difficult to remember to have.
So the first step is developing mindfulness habits, or things that remind you to notice your thoughts, feelings and actions as they occur. A simple way to start with this is keeping a food and habit journal. Knowing you’ll need to write something down is a great way to trick yourself into paying extra attention to what you do throughout the day. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are also useful for this. My 5-day Mindful Meal Challenge is a great way to get started if mindfulness is new to you.

How much do you worry about exercise?  What’s the bare minimum you think people need to do to be in excellent health?  

Haha! I never worry about exercise. I LOVE exercise! I try to do something physical every day if I can, but it usually ends up being 5-6 days per week. For me being active is like recess, a much needed break from all the mental work I have to do for my job. It’s also a great opportunity for me to catch up on the podcasts and audiobooks I love.

That said, I know many people don’t have a strong exercise habit yet and do worry about it. For these people I’d say that the first thing you need to do is get the idea out of your head that there is some prescribed amount of exercise you need to do for it to “count.” If you’re doing nothing, doing anything is an improvement. Exercise is additive, so adding little bits here and there are significant. Also you can be active by doing normal things in your life like walking your dog, commuting to work, house cleaning, etc. The more physically active you are, the easier it will get to do even more of it.

For people looking to create a more formalized exercise schedule aiming for 10,000 steps per day and a bit of cardio and strength training 3-4x per week is a great goal. But again, you don’t have to start here. Start with adding 1000 steps per day, or doing one thing more intense per week if that feels more manageable. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of better.

For someone who doesn’t like to cook and isn’t good at it, what is the fastest and simplest way to get into the habit of cooking healthy food, while minimizing the time spent cooking?

Take my Foodist Kitchen course? LOL. Cooking is a set of skills and habits (e.g. grocery shopping, knife skills, flavor pairing, knowing what goes in when, how to cook until “done,” etc.) that all work together to make you proficient. Cooking is also essential if you’re serious about getting healthy. You don’t have to love cooking, but if you don’t want to cook it’s likely because you don’t know how and spend too much time or don’t know how to make things taste good. Learning to cook without recipes is key, because it means you have the knowledge and skill to whip up something quickly out of almost anything.

Can you share just one or two really simple cooking techniques that people should start with?

If you start with decent ingredients (i.e. seasonal fresh vegetables), you can sauté almost anything in olive oil with garlic and salt and it will taste good.

Similarly, you can dowse evenly cut veggies with olive oil and salt and roast at 350-400 degrees (turning occasionally and stopping when they’re soft) and they’ll taste amazing. Check out my recipe for How to Make Cauliflower Taste as Good as French Fries for an example.

What tools and strategies should people use to build better habits and, as you say, “upgrade their healthstyle?”

The biggest mistake people make is focusing on arbitrary goals like your weight or the size clothes you wear rather than on the behaviors of health. When you focus on creating new behaviors, you quickly realize that you need to be realistic and actually like the things you do if you want them to stick. Learn to view each of your desired behaviors as an experiment, and don’t let yourself get wrapped up in judging your performance as a reflection of your own worth. That’s a waste of time and energy. If you’ve tried to do something new and it failed ask yourself these questions: 1) What went well? 2) What didn’t go well? 3) What can I do differently next time? Keep going through this process and eventually you’ll find the habits that work for you.

Let’s shift focus on talk about mood- what are the first few things you’d have someone look at if they want to consistently have a better mood?

Great question. Having a positive mood is critical for health success. So definitely start here if it’s an issue for you.
Sleep is critical. If you aren’t getting good sleep check your caffeine (coffee past noon is a problem for almost everyone, and people rarely realize it) and other sleep habits. Try to get on a regular schedule.
Exercise is great for both sleep and mood. If your mood is such that you don’t want to exercise, it’s extra important that you find a physical activity you enjoy, even if it is just simple stretching. Remember that moving is innately rewarding. Children and animals run around for fun. Try to reclaim that spirit by thinking of what you enjoyed doing as a child and start there. For bonus points get outdoors, which is also a proven way to lift mood.
Food also plays a critical role in mood. Foods like vegetables, beans and intact grains are energy giving, while sugar, refined flour and greasy foods tend to be energy draining. Pay attention to how different foods affect your mood and choose those that work in your favor. Omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. salmon) are uniquely beneficial for improving mood.
Social networks are critical to happiness, and having a handful of close friends and confidantes is more important than having many casual acquaintances.

What are the biggest mental barriers you see stopping people from living a healthy lifestyle?  

A really big one that is especially common among dieters and health conscious people is moralizing food choices. Foods aren’t innately good or bad, but we tend to think of them that way. That sets you up for a willpower type situation, where eventually you’ll break down because you “deserve” it. It’s much better to recognize that foods that contain carbs or fat or whatever aren’t all “bad” and that eating for enjoyment is also a valid reason to choose a food. If eating for pleasure is “bad” then you can never think of a healthy meal as delicious, since by definition that is when you’re being “good.”
It’s a false dichotomy, but an easy one to convince yourself of. It’s far better to think in terms of value. Is the indulgence level of this particular treat worth the extra caloric load in this moment? If so, how much do I need to make me happy? Thinking this way can help you break the cycle of restriction followed by bingeing.

What are the top 3-5 keystone habits everyone should focus on first?

Cooking is key. It’s almost impossible to feed yourself well if you don’t prepare your own foods.
Not being sedentary by walking and standing up whenever you get the chance. Aim for 10,000 steps a day, but don’t worry if that isn’t possible for you. Do as much as you can.
Eating more vegetables. Even people who think they eat healthy eat a fraction of the number of vegetables they should be getting, and also don’t get enough variety. 50% of your plate should be vegetables at lunch and dinner. Since you probably aren’t getting that much, just aim for 1-2 extra servings per day and build on that. Try to incorporate a new vegetables a couple of times per month if you have a limited number of go-to vegetables.
Grocery shopping is an underrated habit people often overlook. But how can you expect to make good choices if you don’t have the supplies you need in your house? I find it’s worth investing in more high-quality vegetables and shopping in stores you like visiting, rather than bargain hunting. You want to really enjoy your healthy habits, and in the long run cooking for yourself is far cheaper than eating out all the time.
If you nail these habits you can graduate to more advanced ones like strenuous exercise and mindful eating.

How long does it take to build a new habit?  What’s the maximum number of habits people should work on building at one time?

Habits can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to take hold, depending on the complexity and difficulty. As a general rule it’s hard to focus on more than 1-2 habits at once. The key to making a habit stick is making sure you enjoy it. The reward you get is how your brain knows to reinforce the trigger into a feedback loop. If you don’t enjoy it, you’ll never start doing the action automatically and it is therefore not a habit (even if you continue it for quite a while).

So you’ve been very healthy for quite a few years now- what new health habits and routines have you added in the last two years?

Mindful eating and meditation have been the biggest for me, and are totally life changing. It’s next level stuff though, so it’s something you have to be ready for. I’ve also started taking pilates, which I really enjoy (and I now have amazing abs).
Darya Rose, Ph.D is the author of Foodist, and creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME’s 50 Best Websites. She eats amazing things daily and hasn’t even considered going a diet since 2007.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more interviews with some of the world’s smartest health and fitness experts, join my mailing list via the sidebar on the right.