17 Aug 2021
We all have habits, and the unexpected restrictions of successive COVID-19 lockdowns have led to many of us developing new ones, some good and some not so healthful. As we emerge out into the ‘new normal’, it’s a good time to take stock of eating and drinking behaviours and make changes for the better.
The most common approach to changing habits is to launch ourselves with great enthusiasm into a world of restriction, committing ourselves to quitting snacks, alcohol and chips forevermore. This might work for the first week or so but then we give into temptation, and resort back to old habits. However, there are other more successful ways to approach changing habits and creating a healthier you.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re aiming for weight loss, to eat more healthily, control your cholesterol or diabetes, or eat more plant-based foods. The route to successfully changing our eating (or other) behaviours is to focus on forming new habits which will last a lifetime.
Understanding habits and behaviour
Habits are simply something that we do, without thought, as part of our normal routine. Habits are easy – we just do them, day in and day out, without making choices or thinking about what we are doing.
Behaviour is a deliberately chosen way of acting. To change behaviour, we have to make a choice. Whether choosing a new recipe or taking a daily walk, we have to choose to do the new behaviour. This can be hard work and takes lots of willpower, and self-control. Which is all well and good when we are upbeat and energised, but when we fade and become tired, stressed, hungry or bored, temptation kicks in and willpower rapidly fades away. Suddenly we are on the guilt trip of ‘failed again’ without really realising what has happened! Does this sound familiar?
The route to successfully changing our eating (or other) behaviours is to focus on forming new habits which will last a lifetime
Rather than focusing on a behaviour, focus on creating a new routine.
- Part of your routine
- Mindless - happens without thought
- Action needing thought
- Conscious choice
Habits are usually triggered by a time of day, a place or a feeling. The alarm goes off and you make a cup of tea or coffee. It’s 1 o’clock so you eat lunch. After a long day’s work, you eat a few biscuits with a hot drink before making dinner. You don’t think about it – you just make a cup of tea and eat biscuits automatically. Habits are a response to cues and the reason we do them is to get a reward. In this case the cue is feeling tired, and the reward a sweet taste often associated with comfort from childhood.
The starting point is to identify the habit to change (snacking in front of the TV), or the new habit to create (a daily walk perhaps). If it’s a current habit, what reward does that habit give you? Does it give you comfort or an emotional boost? Understanding the reward from a habit makes it much easier to change to a healthier behaviour.
To change a habit a new routine is needed to give the same feeling or reward. In the case of a feeling of comfort from a cup of tea and biscuits at the end of a day you might be able to create that same ‘ah at last I’m home’ feeling by changing clothes and going outside for 10-minutes to de-stress. Rather than simply just trying to stop a habit, you’re more likely to succeed by replacing it with a different, positive one that gives you a reward.
Work out what to change and how to do it. Make it something specific, not just a general ‘I’m going to eat more vegetables’, but a specific ‘I will add a bowl of salad to my lunch every day’. Ensure you can measure what you’ve achieved: ‘I will add a bowl of salad to my lunch every day for the next two weeks’. Make it challenging, but something you have a chance of achieving. Is it realistic? Don’t aim to add a bowl of salad if this is something you hate! Set a time to check in on how you are doing – every two to three weeks is ideal. Have you managed to stick with your new behaviour? Yes? - then great! Is it time to build on this and add something new? No, then ask yourself why? What stopped you? Could you do this differently or was it the wrong thing for you? Work out how to build every time to get to the better healthful habits that you desire.
Plan when and what you are going to eat rather than grabbing food on impulse. Sit down at a table, serve food onto a plate or into a bowl, and use a knife and fork or spoon
Creating a habit requires 3 different things:
A cue – what will trigger the new habit? The time of day? The theme tune of a TV programme?
The routine – this is the new action or habit.
A reward – the benefit gained from doing the habit such as feeling great after a walk. The reward helps the brain to build a positive feedback loop – ‘if I do this then I will feel that’.
Become more aware of your eating and drinking
In our fast-paced society, eating and drinking has become something that is rushed or done at the same time as something else. All too often we watch TV over breakfast or dinner, eating at our desks, or while checking social media posts. How often do you stop and eat a meal on your own, or as a family with no distractions? Sadly, this is becoming increasingly rare.
For too many people, eating has become a mindless act, often done too quickly. Something as simple as the speed at which you eat can increase risk of gaining weight, becoming overweight or obese and having raised levels of blood fats such as cholesterol or triglycerides. All of these increase the risk of developing heart disease. The brain takes up to 20 minutes to realise you’re full, and so if you eat quickly, the fullness signal to stop eating may not arrive until you have already eaten too much. The idea that eating slowly might increase fullness and reduce energy intake at mealtimes seems likely. My mum told us to chew our food twenty times before swallowing and maybe she was right! Chewing each mouthful 35 times compared to 10 times has been shown to reduce energy intake by 12%. Enough to helps stop unwanted weight gain and may be sufficient for weight loss.
Be more mindful of what you eat and drink. Start by consciously slowing down and taking time to taste and chew every mouthful thoroughly. Doing this consistently will help rewire your brain and make enjoyment of food your new normal. Plan when and what you are going to eat rather than grabbing food on impulse. Sit down at a table, serve food onto a plate or into a bowl, and use a knife and fork or spoon. Eat with others to get some healthy social connection, slow down and enjoy the food and conversation.
Mindful eating helps us to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger. It can help increase our recognition of food-related triggers and gives us the freedom to choose our reaction to them. Mindfulness about how much activity we do and what, when and how often we eat and drink isn’t as time consuming as you may think. By paying a bit more attention to what healthier behaviours you can embrace can be a positive way for you to emerge into the ‘new normal’ stronger and fitter than before so what are you waiting for? Simply give thought to your own actions and you will emerge into a whole new positive world. You have nothing to lose but to improve your own physical and mental wellbeing. Why not give it a go?
Quick guide to mindful eating
Mindful eating involves:
eating more slowly and without distractions
eating only until you’re full
recognising between real hunger and non-hunger triggers for eating such as boredom, comfort & stress
engaging your senses - notice mealtime colours, smells, sounds, textures, and flavours
appreciating your food
noticing the effects food has on both your body’s physical and emotional feelings
eating to maintain overall health and wellbeing
Angie Jefferson BSc (Hons) RD, RPHNutr has researched, written and discussed almost every aspect of diet and health.