5 Ingenious Ways to Break Your Bad Eating Habits
Do a quick inventory of your eating habits. What have you changed for the better? Which ones are you happy with--even proud of? On the other side of the spectrum, however, what are the bad habits that still linger, still unravel the other good you’re doing? Consider for a minute what feeds these negative routines. What circumstances, company, attitudes, and self-talk exacerbate them? The best way to tackle our bad habits, of course, is to get at the root of them. Head them off through strategic choices, better awareness and a few ingenious tricks....
Mess with your eating environment.
Oftentimes, it’s not so much the food itself as the mindless consumption of it. In that regard, it’s the eating environment that needs to be addressed first – the how, why, and where. Consider facing these elements as groundwork for addressing the tougher habits to come like changing what you eat. I’ve had several clients break some shockingly bad habits by altering the “how, why, and where” in unique ways.
The Where: Location, location, location; practice the habit of eating only while seated at a table with no distractions other than real, live people. You can realize amazing things about your hunger and satisfaction signals when you eat in a more relaxed environment free of distractions such as the nightly news, web surfing or even driving!
The How: How many times do you chew your food, set your utensil down between bites, or use your non-dominant hand to eat? If you have trouble recalling answers to these simple questions, you probably make it a habit to eat in a rush. Hurried eating is a surefire way to override the natural control mechanisms our bodies have to tell our brain we’ve had enough to eat. Set a timer to go off every minute or so, and only take one bite of food each minute. Practice eating with your non-dominant hand or use chop-sticks. Chew each bite of food at least 30 times (just an arbitrary number to get you to focus on slowing down to chew more thoroughly, not a scientific piece of advice). What do these strategies do to your sense of satisfaction by the end of twenty minutes? How would your eating change by practicing these habits?
The Why: A less obvious environmental factor that impacts our eating habits is why we eat. What would you think if someone asked you, “Why did you have lunch today?” instead of the usual, “What did you have for lunch today?” It sounds silly, I know, but recording the real reason why you eat can make it easier to adopt healthier relationships with food. Emotional awareness is probably just as vital to adopting healthier habits as ample knowledge about food quality. For example, it won’t matter if you fix what you eat but still eat compulsively or uncontrollably out of emotions. Tune into your why, and you’ll forever change your eating environment for the better.
Make the “right” habit too easy.
This piece of advice catches people off guard--a lot. We think we can take on elaborate changes, but taking on too much at once often sets us up for failure. The trick is to select the behavior change that will effectively serve as a foundation to build from. Hopefully this first “easy” step should also achieve what’s called a “minimum effective dose.” Take, for example, the habit of eating vegetables. Most adults know they should eat vegetablesto be healthier. Most have plenty of access to vegetables. However, most adults still don’t consume a “minimum effective dose” of vegetables on a daily basis. (The government has historically recommended at least three 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw servings per day as a good dose.) To make this baseline habit too easy, I’ve found it effective to get people to focus on eating at least one vegetable serving every day. While this may not achieve the minimum effective dose outright, it seems stupidly easy as a habit to practice and essentially sets the groundwork for more of the “right” behaviors to come. It’s something to build off of rather than something to merely aspire to. Easy means you’ll actually do it when you focus on it. Since it’s so easy, you’re more likely to be open to practicing more of that “easy” habit.
Practice saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t.”
I heard this advice on a great podcast interview of Michael Fishman, brilliant advisor to several top health and wellness brands as well as organizer of an annual Consumer Health Summit. He described how he decided to change some of his own behaviors for the sake of his health. He cut down on caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and processed foods containing gluten. Rather than adopting his new habits with the attitude of “I can’t have/eat/consume that (because I’m trying to be healthy,” Fishman approached his new set of behaviors with a self-respecting persona. He’ll politely decline offers for certain foods he knows will not contribute to his health and reinforce his action by stating that he doesn’t consume such products because they are not healthy for him. The words “can’t” and “don’t” sound drastically different. One evokes confidence and purpose, while the other implies oppression and struggle. Which self-talk is healthier for you?
Pick a winning team.
Sometimes you can alter just about everything you can think of in your lifestyle(e.g. environment, intentions, persona, or even mental pep-talks), but it still all goes down the tubes because of the company you keep. Are you always responsible for your individual choices in spite of what others around you do: yes. That said, certain social surroundings and personal relationships can be downright detrimental to your health--especially if you lean on them to support your lifestyle change.
Get out of your comfort zone socially, and find some “teammates” who will help you (whether directly or subtly) stick to your guns and live the life you really want. Many studies have suggested that our immediate social groups have profound impact on our behaviors, moods and more. Build yourself a team of all-stars who demonstrate and exemplify the lifestyle you want to lead. Join a community in which you’ll thrive instead of merely survive. Spouses or partners can be great help if they’re on board, but be sure to find other support whether or not they’re actively encouraging you. I’ve had clients get creative with group approaches. For example, one client teamed up with a co-worker to pack each others’ lunches each day. Simply packing food that would make someone else healthier helped both of them and encouraged them to be creative! Sometimes we’ll do amazing things for others but not for ourselves.
When all else fails, a drastic tactic like blackmail can help you kick some bad habits. My advice: make the consequences tangible and more than a little uncomfortable. In other words, put some skin in the game! Money can be a huge motivator, especially when you stand to lose it if you don’t follow through on those new practices. Consider having a friend hold onto a few hundred dollars with clear directions to keep it for him/herself if you fail to follow through on the commitment by a certain date. This may sound harsh, but it worked brilliantly for John Bear, author of The Blackmail Diet.
Written by Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian