Last week we talked about the physiological reasons why we eat out of habit. Now let’s talk about how to change those habits.
Most of us are creatures of habit. We buy the same foods from the same grocery store, prepare the same recipes over and over, and live within our own familiar routines. If you’re serious about eating healthier and losing weight, you need to shake it up, change those bad eating habits, and start thinking differently about your diet and lifestyle.
Lifestyle can drive, treat, or prevent many of the biggest contributors to premature death and reduced quality of life. According to the National Institute for Health, type 2 diabetes and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) risks could be reduced by as much as 90%, especially in at-risk populations, by adopting a healthier lifestyle. Since as early as 1993, the top 3 causes of premature death have been related to what is done with forks (unhealthy food), fingers (smoking), and feet (low levels of physical activity), and these 3 factors alone accounted for 80% of premature death in the United States. In short, lifestyle changes should be the first line of defense against most modern chronic diseases.
The Encarta World English Dictionary defines a habit as a “regularly repeated behavior pattern; an action or pattern of behavior that is repeated so often that it becomes typical of somebody, although he or she may be unaware of it.” Some habits are good, but others are detrimental to our health. Learn to form healthy habits by replacing the bad ones. An unhealthy habit is easy to develop and hard to live with; a healthy habit is harder to develop but easier to live with. Substituting healthy habits in place of unhealthy ones rewards you with more stamina, better quality of life and a healthier you. I know this is easier said than done, but some simple tips can help overcome even the most indulgent and hardest to kick habits!
Have a good reason to break a bad habit
You need a good, well-thought-out reason for wanting to break a bad habit. Saying “I want to lose weight and exercise,” isn’t enough. Change it to- “I want to lose weight so I can help the pain in my knees and back, decrease some of my medications, stop what is contributing to so many of my medical issues.”
Become more mindful
One of the first steps toward conquering bad eating habits is paying more attention to what you’re eating and drinking. Read food labels, become familiar with lists of ingredients, and start to take notice of everything you put into your mouth. Once you become more aware of what you’re eating, you’ll start to realize how you need to improve your diet.
It can take several months to create a new habit
You have to keep after it. If you forget sometimes, or if is hard to work in to your schedule, keep at it. Remember that an unhealthy habit is attractive because it gives instant gratification- that immediate sense of comfort. But you pay later. On the other hand, a healthy habit means you put off gratification but get a much bigger payoff down the road.
Break a big goal into smaller short-term goals
Don’t go cold turkey. Take baby steps. Cut portions in half, eat an extra serving of vegetables and fruit, pass on or eat just a few bites of dessert. You’ll see the benefits and feel more motivated to move toward your longer-term goal. It’s also not so overwhelming and feels more attainable.
Find new ways to spend your free time
A habit is often a way of spending your time. Find a new way to fill that time so you can successfully break the habit. Work on an art and craft project, puzzle, or play a game, instead of watching television and snacking on work nights. Read through that stack of books and magazines set aside for a “later time” instead of snacking.
Do not go it alone
It is helpful to let a few supportive people know what you are doing, so that they can help to hold you accountable and motivate you during tough times. Tell someone you trust – not someone who will sabotage you. Being accountable to someone can be a powerful motivator.
Do not anticipate failure
Too often, people expect to fail when they are making a change they are not personally invested in because they are changing for someone else. Make sure you’re doing it for a healthier, happier you. Failures may occur but believe in you yourself, your motivations, and your drive to succeed. When setbacks occur, shake it off, accept it, and move forward to the next goal. Sometimes it seems that failure tends to be more public than success. “Everyone will know I failed another diet.” Or at least that’s what we perceive it to be. We fret it, we try to avoid it. The simple truth is – no great success was ever achieved without failure. It may be one epic failure. Or a series of failures such as Edison’s 10,000 attempts to create a light bulb. But that 10,001 attempt was a doozy!
Allow a “cheat” once in a while
If you’ve avoided sweets all week and you’ve been exercising and eating healthy otherwise, you can afford that one small piece of apple pie at Grandma’s house. Or let yourself have one crazy meal a week. The more you feel deprived, the harder it can be to stay the course.
Set “want to” goals
Studies from the American Heart Association have shown that “want to” goals are much more likely to succeed than “have to” goals. Saying, “I have to start eating better” probably is not going to help. Saying, “I want to replace my potato chip and ice cream habits with more fruits and vegetables to lose weight and increase my energy” is more likely to lead to sustained lifestyle changes.
Know why you are doing something
You need to know why you are doing something in order to find an effective way to stop it. Why are you digging into the candy jar, eating when you are not hungry, refusing to exercise, finishing that bag of potato chips? These habits may be the result of chronic stress, boredom, anxiety, lack of self esteem, or poor body image. The underlying reason will impact how you break the habit.
Pick a date to break that habit
Sometimes, you just have to jump. Some people spend so much time researching why to stop doing something, strategizing how to stop doing something, and coming up with ways to make stopping easier, that they never actually get around to stopping. If this sounds familiar, you have to just specify a date to break a bad habit and do it. “Tomorrow I will eat better, period!” Procrastinating never produces results and the anxiety and feelings of failure just add to the false belief “I can’t do it.”
Replacement not deprivation
Many times replacing the habit with a healthier one- exercising, reading, socializing- can help. Even sucking on sugar free candy until the urge to eat something else passes. It’s OK to use another motivation in addition to getting healthier. “I want to fit into that special dress for the upcoming class reunion.” Or, “I want to be more comfortable on the upcoming cross-Atlantic flight.”
Break the TV habit
Use the TV as a means to an end. Catch up on the news while doing chores. Reward yourself with a favorite episode while exercising. Just don’t eat in front of it!
Practice stress management
Focus on dealing with your stressors through exercise, relation, reading, meditation, painting, taking a long walk, or whatever works for you. You’ll be less likely to fall back into bad habits during periods of stress, or use food as a means of comfort to help cope with difficult situations.
It’s easy to make excuses, put it off, start tomorrow. Only you can make the final decision. As with anything overwhelming and scary I believe the best way to deal is to break it down into tolerable moments. Don’t look to the next few weeks or months. Focus on today. On now. Sometimes even a few days can seem too much to handle, so break it into survivable moments- minute to minute, hour to hour or day to day. Whatever it takes to move forward and generate new habits. After a few months these tactics will probably be unnecessary.
You can get through the tough days. Make yourself a pact.
“Today, I will eat healthier, even if it’s just a few carrot sticks.”
“Today I will exercise, even if it’s just walking in place 2 minutes while I brush my teeth.”
Tomorrow will take care of itself.
Eventually this will become your new norm and what you were will become a dream- like past.