How to Break Bad Eating Habits: Dietitian Advice
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Dispelling the 21-day myth to change eating habits

a piece of paper showing how to break bad eating habits

What is the Myth?

The myth that it takes 21 days to change a habit stemmed from a book published in 1960 by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who documented that it took 21 days for a patient to grow accustomed to their new face. In a recent study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it was determined that the average time to anchor a specific eating, drinking or exercise habit was 66 days (but the range was from 18 to 254 days). While this may be bad news if you are trying to reduce your evening junk food consumption, eat breakfast every day or pack your lunch, the good news is that you don’t have to feel like a failure if it takes you more than a month to anchor a habit. Give yourself more time.

The Phases of How Eating Habits Shift

Having observed clients’ eating habits since 2000, I like to think of habit change in three phases:

Phase 1: The Easy Honeymoon

When we first begin working with many of our clients on healthy eating changes, there is often an initial surge of motivation and interest in working on their food choices and routines. Here we often see false overconfidence that can sometimes come with early success.

Phase 2: The Messy Reality

Change is simple, sustaining it isn’t. In this phase of habit formation, our clients find that consistency in what, when and how much they are eating can be hit and miss. Strong learned behaviour developed from our family or culture, along with emotional connections to food, make things harder.

Given the pleasure principle, which states that we are wired to seek pleasure and repel pain, it is easier to give in to short-term gratification of sweet or savoury foods or an extra portion of something really delicious than it is it think of the long-term considerations, such as your weight-management program or heart health.

It is entirely normal to become derailed when life tosses you some stress, a schedule change or a temptation. Since you are a human, not a robot, you can expect to feel like your progress is a roller-coaster ride of successes and failures (not a perfect, linear progression). When you feel defeated, just remember you are still progressing (a.k.a. failing forward) since you are learning, repeating, troubleshooting and figuring out what rewards can help to move you forward. Change is always messy.

Phase 3: The Automatic Anchor

In this phase, it becomes easier to execute a goal on autopilot without as much mental energy and focus. Repetition over time makes eating habits easier since you have simply had enough to practise them. It doesn’t mean you still couldn’t slip and move back into phase two, but the amount of discipline it takes to keep on track is easier.

Building Healthy Habit Loops

Author Charles Duhigg, in the book The Power of Habits, breaks down the science of habit formation by describing habit loops which include three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.

1. Shifting a habit involves first understanding your habit loop right now and then writing out a new routine triggered by the old cue that delivers the same reward.

For example, if you want to work on reducing your junk food consumption, the first step is to understand the cue. When you feel like eating cookies, chips and candy, what time is it, where are you, who are you with, what activity did you just do and what emotion are you feeling? Look for which of these is the strongest cue that shows up every time.

2. Step two is to determine the reward or craving that you are satisfying when you eat a sweet or savoury food. In this step, you need to experiment to see what you are really looking for. Is it that you are truly hungry for food? Or are you bored at work and looking for a temporary distraction? Or maybe you stuffing an uncomfortable emotion such as sadness or anger? Test out if it is food you are really looking for and test what type of healthy snacks could satisfy the craving.

If this doesn’t work, then test out the opposite (non-food rewards). Could taking the dog out for a walk, journaling, watching a funny online video or calling a friend work? Keep testing a wide range of strategies until you stumble upon something that delivers the reward.

One of my clients, for example, discovered her junk food eating cue was after work when she was feeling exhausted. The reward she was seeking was to unwind after a stressful day. She experimented with a range of other ways to get this same reward and learned that taking a shower to wash away the day provided the same reward since she realized it wasn’t really food that she was after.

Duhigg offers this simple fill-in-the-blank formula to post somewhere visible since research has shown writing out a plan is the best way to anchor a new habit:

When (insert CUE from step 1), I will (ROUTINE) because it provides me with (REWARD from step 2).

Article originally appeared in the Calgary Herald Newspaper

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