We’ve all started something enthusiastically (a workout, new eating routine, or even a hobby), only to lose steam and have the behavior fizzle.
When this happens you may be tempted to blame yourself, but don’t go there. Beating yourself up isn’t a motivator and, let’s be honest, change doesn’t happen overnight. Really making over your habits in ways that result in settling into a “new normal” isn’t about willpower—it’s a process.
Here are five key ways to support new eating patterns that lead to a healthier lifestyle.
Derail existing unhealthy habits
Research shows that about 40 percnet of our activities are performed in the same daily situations (e.g. wake up, walk into the kitchen, make coffee), because we repeat what seems to be working, and we form associations between cues and behaviors (spot the coffee machine, grab the pot). That means the first step toward forming a new habit is breaking the connections that trigger you to do the opposite, or something else, which creates a window of opportunity to act differently.
For example, if you want to drink water in the morning instead of java, stash the coffee maker in a cupboard, put a display of fancy drinking glasses in its place, and put a water pitcher in the fridge so it’s the first thing you spot. Just breaking your usual connections can have a huge impact on the success of new habits. One of my clients formed an unhealthy habit of snacking before dinner because she turned on the TV the moment she got home, and she associated watching TV with snacking. When she started listening to music or talk radio instead, it helped for her forgo munching on the couch, and she started prepping dinner right away.
Repeat new behaviors
I’m sure you’ve heard various stats about how many times you must repeat a behavior before it becomes a new habit—some say daily for 21 days, others 30. Research from University College London found that for a group of 96 people it took 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. One thing’s for certain, though: if you stick with something, such as making a smoothie for breakfast every morning, it will eventually become second nature.
In fact, a new study from Tufts University found that among people who participated in a weight loss program, MRI scans detected changes in areas of the brain’s reward center tied to learning and addiction. After six months, the volunteers’ brains indicated increased feelings of reward and enjoyment of healthier foods, and a decreased desire for unhealthy fare. The take-home message here is just keep repeating and be patient. Six months (or even two months!) may seem like a long time, but in relation to the rest of your life, this investment in forming lasting healthy, habits is just a blip on the radar.
Create cues for healthy patterns
Paving the way for new behaviors can be accomplished by using what scientists refer to as context cues, which essentially means tying the behavior to something else that makes sense. For example, if you already cook dinner at home, set a goal of using that time to prepare lunch for the next day, too. (Even if it’s just portioning out leftovers to take to work.) When a new behavior is consistently carried out within a specific context it’s much easier to remember to take action, and those actions are more likely to stick. For example, you’ll wind up with clean eating lunches all week instead of forgetting and having to buy a less healthy meal.
I’ve seen people apply this in lots of ways, and it’s worked for me, too. For example, I started to practice brief meditation immediately after opening my blinds to let in the morning sun. Before long, the two actions began to feel like one daily ritual. Even setting your cell phone alarm to trigger you to take a break at the office to drink water or have a healthy snack can work as a cue. For many of my clients, this trick eventually led to automatically taking the break without needing the alarm.
Question conventional notions
In my years of counseling I’ve found that many people who are on the road to forming a new habit wind up talking themselves into quitting, because they hang onto conventional notions about what will work. For example, the eating plan in my latest book, S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim, requires taking a "daily dark chocolate escape," which involves eating a few squares of dark chocolate without distraction during “you time.” Over and over I’ve seen this tactic work for curbing cravings, and decreasing the desire to eat both sweet and salty “junk foods” like chips and baked goods.
But the moment someone starts to think, “Two little dark chocolate squares aren’t going to make me not want cookies” they stop practicing it, and stop giving it the chance to make an impact. But the truth is many of the assumptions we hold about what will work or won’t are false. One recent Stanford study found that small portions are actually more satisfying than larger ones. Another found that “no pain, no gain” workouts that don’t feel fun can trigger rebound overeating, which may cancel out your calorie burn. Bottom line: keep an open mind. I’ve had dozens of clients say things like, “I never thought I’d ever be able to give up diet soda” or “I never thought I’d look forward to cooking healthy meals” but they got there because they had faith and hung in.
One of the most critical steps in forming new healthy patterns is support. Unfortunately our culture is set up to encourage and reinforce lots of unhealthy habits, so trying to change or form new ones can feel like swimming upstream. Just the other day a client told me he didn’t realize just how unhealthy his work and home environments really were until he made a conscious effort to get healthy. To combat discouragement, stress, self doubt, or thoughts about throwing in the towel, find at least one person who really gets what you’re doing and can cheer you on, or at least let you vent when you’re feeling challenged. Even online support from people you’ll never meet but who are like-minded can help immensely.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.