When it comes to eating, we have some strong habits.
Some are good - "I always eat breakfast" - and some are not so good - "I always clean my plate". Although many of our eating habits have been with us for years, it's never too late to change them.
Have you or someone you know eaten nothing but cabbage soup for days or weeks? Making sudden, radical changes to eating habits such, can lead to short term weight loss. However, such radical changes are neither healthy nor a good idea, and won't be successful in the long run. Permanently improving your eating habits requires a thoughtful approach in which you Reflect, Replace and Reinforce.
- Reflect on all of your specific eating habits, both unhealthy and healthy; and your common triggers for unhealthy eating.
- Replace your unhealthy eating habits with healthier ones.
- Reinforce your new, healthier eating habits.
Reflect, Replace, Reinforce: A process for improving your eating habits
Create a list of your eating habits. Keeping a food diary for a few days, in which you write down what you eat at what times, will help you uncover some patterns. For example, you might discover that you always seek a sweet snack to get you through the mid-afternoon energy slump. It's good to note how you were feeling when you decided to eat, especially if you were eating when not hungry. Were you tired? Stressed out?
Highlight the habits on your list that may be leading you to overeat. Common eating habits that can lead to weight gain are:
- Eating too fast
- Always cleaning your plate
- Eating when not hungry
- Eating while standing up (may lead to eating mindlessly or too quickly)
- Always eating dessert
- Skipping meals (or maybe just breakfast)
Look at the unhealthy eating habits you've highlighted. Be sure you've identified all the triggers that cause you to engage in those habits. Identify a few you'd like to work on improving first.
Don't forget to pat yourself on the back for the things you're doing right. Maybe you eat fruit for dessert, or you drink low-fat or fat-free milk. These are good habits! Recognizing your successes will help encourage you to make more changes.
Create a list of "cues" by reviewing your food diary to become more aware of when and where you're "triggered" to eat for reasons other than hunger. Note how you are typically feeling at those times. Often an environmental cue, or a particular emotional state, is what encourages eating reasons other than hunger.
Common triggers for eating when not hungry are:
- Opening up the cabinet and seeing your favourite snack food.
- Sitting at home watching television.
- Before or after a stressful meeting or situation at work.
- Coming home after work and having no idea what's for dinner.
- Having someone offer you a dish they made "just for you!"
- Walking past a candy dish on the counter.
- Sitting in the break room beside the vending machine.
- Seeing a plate of doughnuts at the morning staff meeting.
- Swinging through your favourite drive-through every morning.
- Feeling bored or tired and thinking food might offer a pick-me-up.
Circle the cues on your list that you face on a daily or weekly basis. Going home for the Holidays may be a trigger for you to overeat. Eventually, you want to have a plan for as many eating cues as you can - but for now, focus on the ones you face more often.
Ask yourself these questions for each "cue" you've circled:
Is there anything I can do to avoid the cue or habit? This option works best for cues that don't involve other people. For example, could you choose a different route to work to avoid stopping at a fast food restaurant on the way? Is there another place in the break room where you can sit so you're not next to the vending machine?
For things I can't avoid, can I do something differently that would be healthier? Obviously, you can't avoid all situations that trigger your unhealthy eating habits, like staff meetings at work. In these situations, evaluate your options. Could you suggest or bring healthier snacks or beverages? Could you offer to take notes to distract your attention? Could you sit farther away from the food so it won't be as easy to grab something? Could you plan ahead and eat a healthy snack before the meeting?
Can I replace unhealthy habits with new, healthy ones? For example, in reflecting upon your eating habits, you may realize that you eat too fast when you eat alone. So, make a commitment to share a lunch each week with a colleague, or have a neighbor over for dinner one night a week. Other strategies might include putting your fork down between bites or minimizing other distractions, like watching the news during dinner, which might keep you from paying attention to how quickly — and how much — you're eating.
Here are more ideas to help you replace unhealthy habits:
Eat slowly. If you eat too quickly, you may "clean your plate" instead of paying attention to whether your hunger is satisfied.
Eat only when you're truly hungry. This means refraining from eating because you are tired, anxious, or feeling an emotion besides hunger. If you find yourself eating when you are bored or anxious, try to find a non-eating activity to do instead. You may find a quick walk or phone call with a friend helps you feel better.
Plan meals ahead of time. This helps ensure you eat a healthy, well-balanced meal.
Be patient with yourself as you reinforce your new, healthy habits. Habits take time to develop; it doesn't happen overnight. When you find yourself engaging in an unhealthy habit, stop as quickly as possible and ask yourself: Why do I do this? When did I start doing this? What changes do I need to make? Be careful not to berate yourself or think that one mistake "blows" a whole day's worth of healthy habits.
You can do it! It just takes one day at a time!