Most of us are creatures of habit. We buy the same foods from the same store, prepare the same recipes over and over, and stick to our own comfortable routines.
But if you are determined to start eating healthier and lose weight, you need to change those bad eating habits, and start thinking differently about your diet and lifestyle.
“Many people are skeptical about changing their diets because they have grown accustomed to eating or drinking the same foods, and there is a fear of the unknown or trying something new,” says John Foreyt, PhD, director of the Baylor College of Medicine Behavioral Medicine Research Center.
How often do you find yourself staring into the fridge when your not even hungry?
“Over time, habits become automatic, learned behaviors, and these are stronger than new habits you are trying to incorporate into your life,” says Foreyt.
If habits are learned behavior that means we can change what we are doing to learn and replace those bad habits with new and more useful ones.
Learning something new takes time so don’t beat yourself up if you make a slip from time to time. Keri Gans, MS, RD, American Dietetic Association spokesperson and a nutritionist in private practice in New York says “try to gradually incorporate new habits over time, and before you know it, you will be eating more healthfully and losing weight”.
10 Steps to Changing Unhealthy Habits
When you need to make changes in your life it is best to set out a plan and takle things one step at a time. Teri Goetz MS, LAC, ACC advises to follow these 10 steps:
- Identify the habits you want to change. This means bringing what is usually unconscious (or at least ignored) to your awareness. It does not mean beating yourself up about it. Make a list of things you’d like to change, and then pick one.
- Look at what you are getting out of it? In other words, how is your habit serving you? Are you looking for comfort in food? Numbness in wine? An outlet or connection online? Stress alleviation through eating or nail biting? This doesn’t have to be a long, complex process. You’ll figure it out—and you’ll have some good ideas about how to switch it up for healthier outcomes.
- Honor your own wisdom. Here’s a common scenario. You feel like you have no down-time, so you stay up way too late binge-watching your favorite show on Netflix. You know you’ll be exhausted and less productive the next day, but you feel “entitled” to something fun, just for you. Your wisdom knows this is not a healthy way to get it. Use that wisdom to build something into your schedule that will provide what you really want. Realize you do have the answers and are capable of doing something different.
- Choose something to replace the unhealthy habit. Just willing yourself to change isn’t enough because it does not address the underlying benefit of the behavior you want to replace. What can you do instead of standing in front of the fridge when you’re stressed? If you have a plan, you are “armed” with tools and a replacement behavior. Next time you catch yourself standing in front of the refrigerator and not hungry, use the tools and try a replacement behavior. Some ideas: breathe in to the count of 4 and breathe out to the count of 8, focusing only on your breathing. Do that 4 times and see how you feel. If you need more support, stand there till you come up with one reason why you shouldn’t continue with this habit. This is a key step. When you do something different to replace an unhealthy habit, acknowledge to yourself that you are doing it differently. You need to bring whatever it is that is subconscious to the conscious mind so that you can emphasize your ability to change. It can be as simple as saying to yourself, “Look at that. I made a better choice.”
- Remove triggers. If Doritos are a trigger, throw them out on a day you feel strong enough to do so. If you crave a cigarette when you drink socially, avoid social triggers—restaurants, bars, nights out with friends… just for a while until you feel secure in your new habit. Sometimes certain people are our triggers. Remember that you end up being like the five people you hang out with most. Look at who those people are: do they inspire you or drag you down?
- Visualize yourself changing. Serious visualization retrains your brain. In this case you want to think differently about your ability to change—so spend some time every day envisioning yourself with new habits. Exercising and enjoying it, eating healthy foods, fitting into those jeans. See yourself engaged in happy conversation with someone instead of standing in the back of the room. This kind of visualization really works. The now familiar idea that “nerves that fire together wire together” is based on the idea that the more you think about something, and do it, the more it becomes wired in your brain and your default choice can actually be a healthier one for you.
- Monitor your negative self-talk. The refrain in your brain can seriously affect your default behaviors. So when you catch yourself saying, “I’m fat” or “No one likes me,” re-frame it or redirect it. Re-framing is like rewriting the script. Replace it with, “I’m getting healthy, or “My confidence is growing.” Redirecting is when you add to your negative self-talk of “I’m fat” with “but I’m working my way into a healthier lifestyle.” Judging yourself only keeps you stuck. Retrain the judgy brain.
- Take baby steps, if necessary. Even if you can’t follow through 100% right away with a whole new habit, turn something new into habit. For example, if you’ve blocked out an hour to exercise and you have to go to a doctor’s appointment, find another time to squeeze in at least 15 minutes. That way you’ll reinforce that “this is my new habit.”
- Accept that you will sometimes falter. We all do. Habits don’t change overnight. Love yourself each time you do and remind yourself that you are human.
- Know that it will take time. Habits usually take several weeks to change. You have to reinforce that bundle of nerves in your brain to change your default settings.
One of the best ways to reinforce the intent of committing to a plan of action is to write it down. Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California, did a study on goal-setting with 267 participants. She found that you are 42 percent more likely to achieve your goals just by writing them down
You can go a step further and make up a contract detailing what you will do, when you will do it and sign it. Make sure you refer back to your ‘contract’ at regular intervals to reaffirm you are on the right course and sign it each time.