Are you sick and tired of hopping on and off the diet hamster wheel, but you want to be a comfortable, healthy weight? If you are serious about losing weight, the only way to get permanent results is by changing your eating habits.
The key is to ditch the eating habits that cause you to gain weight and establish new healthier ones.
First, let’s start with what a habit is. Habits are when your actions are driven by routines that you don’t think about, or don’t have to think much to do them. You probably have a habit to brush and floss your teeth before you go to bed. How you brush is also probably a habit. You just do it.
The reason you don’t forget to brush your teeth is because your brain knows that you do it before you go to bed every night, and subconsciously reminds you. That’s the essence of a habit.
Almost everyone who wants to weigh less has a number of habits surrounding how they eat that result in overeating and gaining weight. That’s precisely why it’s important to establish good habits surrounding how you eat. So that you automatically make smart choices instead of overeating choices.
To understand habits, it’s important to appreciate how your brain works. Your brain is made up of many different parts, but for the sake of simplicity, it can be divided into three general areas:
There’s what I’ll call your lizard brain, which ignites your fight or flight response in certain situations to keep you safe. It also operates certain crucial body functions, like your heartbeat and breathing. You don’t even have to think about it. Your brain knows what to do.
Your intentional, thought-out actions are managed by your neo-cortex, which I’ll call your thinking brain. It’s responsible for things like language, consciousness, imagination, and critical thinking. It can do things that the brains of other animals can’t.
The third part of the brain I’ll call your “beastie brain,” with credit to Martha Beck for that name. Your beastie brain deals with emotions and habits, among other things.
The reality is that, aside from your fight or flight response that used to keep your prehistoric ancestors safe from being eaten by lions and bears, the only part of your brain that cares about your well-being is your thinking brain.
Your beastie brain is happy continuing to do what it knows. That often means that it helps you to continue doing your bad habits. You see, your brain uses a ton of energy, about one quarter of your total calories in a day. Therefore, by repeating your old habits, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard. This conserves energy.
Think of your habits like paths in the woods. Trails are formed when people or animals walk on them over and over again, and plants get killed by feet. Eventually, there’s a well-worn path. If you go for a walk in the woods, you’ll likely choose to follow the easy, well-worn path instead of crashing your way through shrubs and brambles to get to your destination.
When you go for that walk, and the trail is easy and beautiful, you enjoy it. The reward circuit part of your brain releases dopamine, your feel-good hormone. Because you associate feeling good with walking the easy path, you may want to walk on this trail again.
If, on the other hand, you decided to smash your way through an uncharted path, got all scraped up on shrubs, and maybe got lost, it wouldn’t be so much fun. Hence your body doesn’t produce dopamine, and you won’t want to do it again.
Whenever we do anything that we feel is rewarding, like having sex, creating something we’re proud of, or even eating, dopamine is produced. It can be activated when you do healthy things like feeling great after yoga class or going to the gym.
Knowing this, you can understand why it is so hard to stop emotional eating and overeating. If you’ve been in the habit of feeding yourself to feel better, that’s what your beastie brain knows and will move you to do this practically automatically.
Adding to the problem is the fact that when you eat for emotional reasons, you don’t immediately feel the consequences of your habit. It takes time to notice the consequence of continuing to gain weight while you’re enjoying those cookies.
You’re going for the big dopamine hit and not thinking about how you will feel when you can’t fit into your summer clothes or how much more tired you may feel, or how your joints might ache carrying around extra weight.
Humans are inclined to choose the immediate gratification over their more important long-range goals.
The rewards for your new eating habits, things like feeling light, losing weight, and liking how you look when you’re trimmer, are also delayed. It takes time for the weight to come off. This adds to the challenge of changing your eating habit.
But do not despair! You CAN break any habit and replace it with a healthier, more desirable one. Keep reading to learn some strategies that will help you.
How can you get that nice dopamine hit from doing the right thing, without having to wait to see the number on the scale go down or for those jeans to fit again?
Here are some things you can do to establish and stick with positive new habits. I’ll explain it using the example of wanting to break the habit of eating for emotional reasons when you aren’t hungry.
An important first step is simply noticing what prompts you to do the bad habit. Is it stress? Do you start chowing down food when preparing dinner after a long day of work when you’d rather be relaxing? Maybe you sit down to watch TV with your partner after dinner, and routinely bring a bag of snack food with you.
Once you know whenyou’re most likely to do the undesirable habit, you can be alert for that. You can also eliminate triggers whenever possible. You can decide to just focus on one time of day at first, if that works better for you. Like if you snack in front of the TV, stop watching TV in the evening for a few weeks, or watch it in a different room that you don’t associate with eating, if that is an option.
Most of the time when you have trouble establishing a habit, it isn’t because you’re lazy or unmotivated. It’s because you don’t have a plan that makes it easier to implement your new habit. Attach your new habit to something you already do.
Give yourself reminders, like putting a note by where you eat to journal what you’re eating, or to take a few deep breaths before you start to eat, or whatever habit you’re trying to establish. Remembering is often a problem with getting started, and you’re going against your brain’s autopilot on the old habit, so a reminder is super helpful.
This part is key. Remember, your old habit has the advantage of generating feel-good hormones. Even though overeating is bad for you, the beastie and lizard parts of your brain don’t care. They make you feel good when you do it.
So you have to use your thinking brain to help you feel good when you make a good choice to do your new habit. You can do this the way BJ Fogg, a Stanford psychologist who is an expert on habits recommends: celebrate your success!
Immediately give yourself a fist pump or do something else that will make you feel good about your choice. Tell yourself, “I did it! I only ate one cookie!!” and take some pride in it.
Or you can do what psychologist Kelly McGonigal recommends: consider your new habit an expression of love for yourself and come up with a personal phrase of love or compassion that expresses this. Every time you choose to do the new habit, you’re demonstrating a commitment to your happiness and well-being.
Let it be the fuel for your action. Say your phrase of love or compassion when you do the habit. It can be something like, “I deserve to be healthy” or “I’m doing a great job,” or “I feel so good when I don’t overeat.”
Either of these approaches will generate those feel-good hormones so you and your brain begin to associate doing the new habit with feeling good. That makes it more likely that you’ll do it again and again.
This is another good way of using your thinking brain to help you establish the new habit. In episode 20 of the Weight Loss for Foodies podcast I talk about the importance of knowing WHY you want to lose weight, and that should be connected to something that generates a positive emotion, like wanting to be around to see your grandchildren, being able to continue having an active life, or reducing your heart palpitations.
Really think about why you are pursuing this goal, write it down, and remind yourself at least once a day. You can even incorporate your why into that positive phrase I mentioned earlier. Really think about how your life would improve by changing your eating habits.
Imagine how great it will feel to not be stuffed after every meal, or to not have to squeeze into seats on the train or whatever is it you’d like to feel.
This last part is critical for your success. Every time you celebrate a small win, that’s evidence that you can do this. If you believe that you’ll fail because you’ve been unable to change these habits in the past, you will prove yourself right. We can’t accomplish anything if we doubt our ability to do it. Remind yourself that you can make these changes.
Remember, changing your habits requires patience and persistence, but it’s the only way to lose weight and keep it off. Chart your progress by celebrating each time you make a good choice, rather than with the scale, and you’ll propel yourself towards your goals.
Ignore what you’ve read about it taking 3 weeks to break a habit. I’ve read contrary evidence, and my belief, from personal experience, is that it is all about repetition, and how much repetition is needed for your new trail to become your well-worn path.
Everyone is different, and every habit is different in the amount of time it takes to change. Once you’ve created that new well-worn path, sticking to it will be much, much easier. Just like remembering to brush your teeth.
If emotional eating is a habit you struggle with, check out my free video masterclass, Kick the Emotional Eating Habit for Good.
Is emotional eating the reason you don’t eat healthy? How often do you catch yourself feeling good when acting on bad habits? Have you tried creating healthy habits instead? What helped you to be successful? Please share with the community!
Tags Healthy Eating
The Noom app is a very good resource for weight loss and maintenance.
Despite what Noom advertises, it is a diet. I do not recommend using it.