How to Change Eating Habits Permanently
Nutrition change is hard, here are some strategies to help
A few years ago I attended a conference by Dr. Michael Vallis, Registered Psychologist and leader of the Behaviour Change Institute, who opened his session with the bold statement, “Healthy behaviour is abnormal behaviour.” I was struck by the raw truth of this statement since to be a healthy weight is statistically abnormal given that more than half of Canadians struggle with their weight. Healthy behavior is abnormal behavior. This means, if you are currently eating well and exercising you are strangely abnormal.
Barriers to changing eating habits permanently
Our environment makes it easy and normal to eat junk food and maintain a sedentary lifestyle. It may sound easy and normal to eat enough vegetables each day, cut back on ultra processed food and eat less greasy fast-food, but struggling to make change is actually indeed what is normal.
Part of the reason change is hard is because of the pleasure principle, which states that we are wired to approach pleasure and repel pain. If eating a healthy breakfast and packing your lunch for work means you need to get up a half hour earlier, this is likely to be painful while sleeping in is pleasurable. If the choice is a chocolate bar or a bag of chips versus raw veggies as a snack, again the pleasure principle makes it hard to choose the healthier option.
Changing eating habits is also hard because we follow the path of least resistance. Modern technology and our time-starved, rushed lives make it hard for us to want to take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to run errands instead of driving and cook a healthy meal from scratch instead of going to a drive through.
Nutrition change is also incredibly hard since we eat for so many reasons, not just biologic hunger. Food and eating patterns change based on our environment, emotions, stress level, social situation, family ritual and income level.
We are also wired as humans to consider short-term gain over long-term consequences. The immediate gratification of an extra portion at supper or devouring sweet or savoury snacks in the evening, often trumps considerations about risk of diabetes or heart disease.
Moving towards changing eating habits
If you have struggled to make changes to your lifestyle or eating habits you are not alone. Your ability to change is based on distress tolerance or being able to push through discomfort and all of the above barriers. You may find working through the following readiness questions with a psychologist or health professional trained in motivational interviewing helpful:
Answer YES or NO (another word for no is “NOT YES”)
Do you view X as a problem?
Does X concern you or cause distress?
Are you interested in changing?
Are you ready to change now?
Unless you say YES to ALL OF THE ABOVE don’t expect change to happen easily. If the answer is NO don’t worry! Work towards change by overcoming barriers.
Why do you want to change?
How hard are you willing to work to change?
Are you willing to do the work now even if you don’t see the benefit?
Source: Behaviour Change Institute
5 Atributes for Sustaining Change
Over the past 20 years of working with individuals and families on nutrition and lifestyle change, I have found five key themes that differentiate my clients of mine who have struggled with how to change eating habits (stuck strugglers), versus clients that have sustained change (shaker movers):
1. Execute Small Repeatable Steps
Stuck strugglers have a “go big or go home” and “all or none” mindset with attempting extreme makeovers or “binge change.”
Shaker movers instead have a “bite-sized changes for supersized results” mindset. Small steps are sustainable when life gets busy or stressful. They can be repeated and built on, leading to feelings of momentum and success.
2. Customize with Intuition
Stuck strugglers eat someone else’s way. They jump on the trend wagon or latest and greatest short term fad that does not take into account their own “food personality” (food preferences, family situation and intuitive eating patterns).
Shaker movers instead eat their own way. Since there are a million and one ways to achieve health, they develop a customized nutrition plan that considers food preferences and a quality of life desired with long-term sustainability. They don’t remove a large amount of food they enjoy for no clear medical reason.
3. Lead with Imperfection
Stuck strugglers have a rigid and perfectionist mindset with no room for errors, being human, going on vacation or having a social life.
Shaker movers on the other hand focus on progress not perfection. They view failing as moving forward with new insights (aka “failing forward”). They understand that change is a process and not an event.
4. Supported and Connected
Stuck strugglers attempt change as a lone ranger that goes at it alone and doesn’t seek support from a health professional and/or like-minded group or trusted friend.
Shaker movers understand the benefit of having one person or a tribe of like-minded individuals moving forward with change. After all change is contagious if you are surrounded by people taking action. They understand the benefit of intentionally seeking out people that are already “walking the talk” and supportive of your change.
5. Clear Goals to Crush
Stuck strugglers have lofty goals with no specific action plans. (aka not setting SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound). As the old saying by Yogi Berra goes, “if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”
Shaker movers instead create systems and have answers to the “who, what, when, where and why of food preparation, shopping and eating. They set clear goals and have systems to hold them accountable to help them crush their targets.
More Support on How to Change Eating Habits Permanently
Looking for some inspiration to dive deeper on the topic of achieving your most important goals in any aspect of your life? I’m a fan of the book Your Best Year Ever by Michael Hyatt so grab a written or audio copy of the book and enjoy.
You might also benefit from these other resources on our blog when it comes to the topic of how to change eating habits permanently:
- How to Break Bad Eating Habits: Dispelling the 21 Day Myth to Change a Habit
- How to Drag a Reluctant Partner into Better Eating Habits (Without a Family Feud)
- Our Best Dietitian Articles of the Year!
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About Andrea Holwegner
CEO, Registered Dietitian, Counseling Practice Director & Professional Speaker
Andrea the «Chocoholic Nutritionist» is founder and CEO of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. since 2000. She is an online nutrition course creator, professional speaker and regular guest in the media. Andrea is the recipient of an award by the Dietitians of Canada: The Speaking of Food & Healthy Living Award for Excellence in Consumer Education....Read more