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Changing Eating Habits

  • Eating

Ah, the power of habit. We cherish our “good” ones and loathe our “bad” ones. Nowhere is this truer than in the eating and lifestyle arenas. The truth is, we understand very little about the purpose of habits and how to alter them. Learning more about the process of habit formation is the best way to succeed at changing them.

Charles Duhigg, author of THE POWER OF HABIT, offers some wisdom on the subject (“Strengthening New Year’s Resolutions,” Psychotherapy Networker, Jan/Feb 2013). He reports on the conclusions of a Duke University study: “40-45% of people’s daily actions are habits or unconscious decisions.” Whoa, we’re talking about almost half of what we do! He explains that habits are a kind of “functional autopilot mechanism,” that is, they free up the brain to focus on more important matters than, say, whether to brush your teeth before or after you wash your face. His point is that habits enable us to put our thinking power where it really matters, into what will help us survive and thrive.

That’s the upside of automatic behaviors. The downside is trying to change the ones that don’t serve us. Duhigg explains why this is hard: “When you have a neurological pattern established via habits, you can’t simply say, ‘I’m going to stop doing that’. You can’t just willpower through, ignoring the cues and the cravings and the reward. It doesn’t actually work.” As you well know. Most disregulated eaters believe (in spite of gobs of experience and evidence to the contrary) that if they simply try harder, they’ll muscle their old habits out the door and usher in some new ones.

What does help to alter eating (and other) habits is to change the cues that generate unwanted behavior. Want to go for a run tomorrow? Lay out your clothes tonight and put your track shoes where you’re bound to trip over them. Want to eat more fruits and veggies? Place them at eye level somewhere accessible. Want to stop weighing yourself? Put away the scale. When you think you want food but aren’t hungry, go look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re craving—sleep, a hug, a good cry, self-time.

Do two things to reinforce new, positive habits. First, heap praise upon yourself and feel proud. Doing this is often difficult for disregulated eaters who are used to feeling shame and find pride uncomfortable. Do it anyway. Second, reinforce positive eating or lifestyle habits by rewarding yourself for them. The reward should be something pleasurable (not food!) because pleasure triggers release of dopamine in the brain which cements new behaviors neurologically and makes it more likely that you’ll repeat them in the future.