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How to Break Bad Eating Habits: Dietitian Advice Print

If you want to eat better to achieve better health, energy and move toward your personal best weight, it is no surprise that examining your habits is key to achieve success. But does it really only take 21 days to break a habit?  Read on for my answer to this question and my Dietitian tips on what I’ve learned about breaking bad habits.

Registered Nutritionist tips: how to break bad eating habits for good

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. 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.

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

If you liked this article you may also want to check out this article:
“Why can’t I change my health habits?”

Looking for more information on healthy eating or  dietitian nutrition counseling?

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"I am a psychologist in private practice and it is very important to me that my clients have the best care with other health care professionals. For that reason Health Stand Nutrition is my only source for exceptional Dietitians. Andrea and her team provide highly knowledgeable, compassionate, and real world support to my clients who require assistance with food lifestyle. I trust my clients to them and you would be in excellent hands making them part of your health care team."
Adele Fox, Psychologist
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Rhonda Jenkins, Nutrition Counseling Client
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Marty Avery, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I have come to think of the program as a one stop shopping excursion for everything one needs to know about creating a joyous relationship with food and our bodies. In a single word, the course has gifted me with freedom from the punishing rigidity of disordered eating, old stories that never were true, and body dysmorphia that did nothing but make me lose sight of a body that has done everything I've asked, despite my careless dismissal of her needs. Now when I look in the mirror I find myself shifting from harsh criticism to gentle gratitude.”
Lynn Haley, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
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Peter Whitehead, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I didn’t realize how strong my “diet mentality” was, and all the rules I had in my head about food. I was in a cycle of reward/punish/binge/cringe. I booked with your business very reluctantly, on the repeated advice of my doctor, to get my slowly rising cholesterol levels in check. I thought I knew everything about food, and my behaviour with food, but I was definitely re-schooled. My weight is creeping down, I feel good about my diet, exercise, body image, and lifestyle.”
Amy Floyd, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Thanks Andrea for an amazing presentation, I have heard all positive remarks from attendees and the evaluations show the same sentiment. It is really gratifying when a speaker does their “homework” and weaves in our profession’s day to day challenges within their content, you did an awesome job of this! You truly took the “die” out of Dietician! Your information on healthy eating and simplifying how we can work towards this as we are all so busy really hit the mark. Andrea connects very well with her audience; she is energetic, funny, and very approachable.”
Carole Ann LaGrange, Transfusion Medicine Safety Officer

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I am a family physician who sees patients with a myriad of eating concerns – from wanting to know how to plan healthy meals for active families, to weight loss, to eating disorders, and so on. I cannot recommend the Health Stand team highly enough. I have worked with (and been to!) other Dieticians in the past and too often find that they just ask for food logs and make suggestions that are easily obtained online or in books. The Dieticians at Health Stand offer much more than just telling clients what they “should be eating.” In contrast, the team really does more of a counselling practice, and they work hard to help their clients learn more about why their eating habits may be off track and not optimal for them, as well as helping people to effect change at a deep level that, most importantly, is sustainable for lifetime health.”
Dr. Deb Putnam, Family Physician

Nutrition Counseling Client & Referring Physician

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Gillian Gray, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“As a construction company, we select speakers who can relate to our industry and its employees. Andrea’s message was delivered with humor and empathy. She makes people feel as though they can make changes without leaving behind every favorite food. Andrea focused her presentation on healthy eating as a way to keep energy high throughout the day. This message and the way it was delivered resonated with our predominantly male, blue collar culture. I would highly recommend Andrea as a speaker for groups such as ours. She will get your message across without alienating anyone in your audience – which is a huge hurdle when trying to introduce a wellness program in the workplace!”
Stephanie Wood, HR and Safety Manager

Fisher Construction Group, Burlington, WA

I found my Dietitian warm, funny, and skilled at teaching nutrition concepts without the overwhelm. The general approach of each session was to mix science with emotion, which was exceedingly effective in helping me shift my perspective on food from one of anxiety to one of joy and curiosity.”
Erin Kronstedt, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Excellent presentation! What a refreshing change to have a speaker inspire rather than “lecture” about nutrition. Your captivating stories, tips and overall approach to healthy eating uplifts and puts people at ease. It was great to hear we don’t need to strive to be perfect eaters, and that small changes really can make a difference in how we feel and in our health. Thanks to Andrea, we have solutions to our everyday nutrition challenges that can actually work in real life!”
Tina Tamagi, Human Resources

ARC Resources Ltd.

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