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The New Science Behind Changing Habits


Some people assume they can’t change habits because they’re lazy, unmotivated, undisciplined or lack will power. This assumption is dead wrong, and if you want to change behavioral patterns, you must give up these inaccurate beliefs and be open to learning about what works to rid yourself of old habits and develop new ones. Ready?

“How to Conquer Your Primitive Brain” by Adam Piore (Newsweek, 2/17/23, pp 22-31) debunks myths about destructive habit formation and advocates scientifically proven strategies for constructive habit replacement. Some of the article’s major points:

  • “Research suggests that habits, which operate below conscious awareness, usually cannot be tamed simply by resolving to resist them . . . we need to reverse engineer the chain of behavior that precedes them, and then either remove the cures that set us off altogether, or take the time to build new habits that will replace them.”
  • “Habits are an essential tool of survival—without them, the simple tasks of everyday life would overwhelm us.”
  • “It’s common these days to attribute [self-harmful] behaviors to addiction . . . the habit system is so much broader than that. It doesn’t require craving. Habits are a very common learning system. They are not addictions.”
  • “Once a habit is formed, a single cue—‘an idea or perception’—can serve as an unconscious command that kicks off an automated ‘chain’ of associated movements, which take place outside our awareness . . . Anytime the neurons associated with a cue are activated . . . they trigger the firing of neurons involved in the chain of actions that brings about the desired reward.”
  • “The most direct and effective way to change a habit is not to change or police your conscious thoughts, but to change your environment and attack the cues that set off the habit in the first place.”

To recap, habits are an evolutionary tool to conserve mental energy that helps us survive and thrive. Policing your thoughts and calling yourself nasty names because of your behavior won’t change them. Habits are formed when we repeat actions over and over and get pleasure from them when dopamine is released in the brain. By the time you’re smoking that cigarette or polishing off the rest of the apple pie just because it’s in front of you, you’re in the throws of habit (which is different from addiction). The best way to change a habit is to remove the cues that trigger it (eg, don’t go to the bar, buy cigarettes, or bring food to the couch while you’re watching TV) and find better ways to reward yourself. No magic here, just a proven pathway to success.