What are habits and how do we break them?

Looking up the definition of ‘habits’, there appear to be several, including but not limited to the following relevant ones;

  • an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary
  • addiction

Being stuck in my own unhealthy habits for most of my life, I can honestly say that this is so true in regards to eating and drinking. Until my ‘change’ in March of last year, I felt everything but in control of what I ate and how much of it I ate. Something else was controlling me, while I kept screaming at myself to stop. I had so many reasons to stop doing what I was doing, but I just kept on going. It felt involuntary, it was an addiction.

Let’s have a further look and break the habits down into three topics; what we eat, when we eat and how much we eat.

What we eat
When addicted to certain types of food, we tend to be addicted to savory foods that contain fat, sugar and/or salt. Experiments on animals as well as humans have shown that they can have the same effect on the brain as drugs such as cocaine or heroine. If you are an emotional eater (like myself) it’s easy to become addicted to chocolate, potato chips, fast food and many more unhealthy foods.
What we eat is also greatly influenced by experience; what did our parents teach us to eat? What do our friends eat? Which foods are we exposed to in our environment (school, work, and so on)?

What can we do?
Once these habits are part of our lives, all we can do is work hard to break them by searching for alternatives. First we need to know which foods on our current menus are good for us and which foods aren’t. Don’t change the foods that are good for you. It’s going to be hard enough to take out the foods that aren’t. For the latter, try to find alternatives that you can live with and ease into it. There’s no need to go from one extreme to another. Take small steps by either changing one or two things at a time or by choosing for the middle ground first.

When we eat
Some of us can eat ’round the clock. You can wake them in the middle of the night, serve a complete meal and they’ll eat it all. Others cannot eat two bites of a sandwich in the morning even if they wanted to.
Luckily I’m not one of those people who can wake up in the middle of the night feeling hungry as hell, needing to grab anything that’s available. Only during the first weeks of my changed lifestyle, while I was still searching for the best way to lose weight, I’d wake up sporadically feeling so terribly hungry that I decided to eat the egg white of a boiled egg. Which would keep me sleeping for the rest of the night until it was time for breakfast. But moving forward I’d learn how to avoid that and eat just enough to feel OK until my morning meal. And the morning meals themselves also aren’t an issue for me at all.
However, even though I don’t struggle with it myself, it is definitely worth mentioning here because so many people do. And, not to be cliche, breakfast is so important! Recently I found that, perhaps because of my increased exercise activities, my breakfast wasn’t enough for me to go without snacks until lunch time. Therefore I decided to increase my protein intake during breakfast. This worked; I didn’t feel the need for a snack before lunch time but I even found that I ate less during the whole day! For me, eating a big breakfast makes me lose weight quicker and easier.

How do we change it?
Methods to change when you eat aren’t that easy to find. To know if there are methods at all, besides ‘breaking the habit’, I needed to know first if not being able to have breakfast, for instance, is something that’s physically determined as well. But apparently studies on this aren’t easily available online. Most websites – if they provide reasons at all – focus on having too much for dinner the night before or they call it (there’s that word again) a habit. So for those who struggle with this; let’s just assume we can break the habit and give it go?

How much we eat
Pleasure signals we experience when eating the savory foods mentioned above can override the signals our body would normally provide once we are full. So we just keep eating, despite the voices in our head that scream it’s not good for us. These voices can even make things worse; it’s a vicious circle. We eat to feel better, but it makes us feel worse, and then we try to compensate by eating even more. Strange but true.

Methods to change how much you eat include: 

  • Measuring your food intake; simply use a kitchen scale to determine how much food you’ve put on your plate! This way you can decide in advance how much you want to eat of each food group and during this particular meal, based on your rational thoughts and not on involuntary behavior that is triggered by the pleasure center in your brain. Be strong and don’t go for seconds.
  • Logging your food intake; to be able to log your food intake, of course you must measure it first. It sounds like a lot of work but it’s definitely worth it and remember that eating too much is a habit, but measuring and logging your food can also become a habit making it something that you do automatically! Ha! Habits CAN be positive as well!
    Tip: www.myfitnesspal.com is a great website and app that facilitates logging your food and so much more. Be sure to at least check it out!
  • Using a smaller plate; filling up a small plate leaves you much more satisfied than using a big plate that has empty space on it.
  • Making it more difficult to eat more; if you leave the pots and pans on the stove and have to go back to the kitchen for seconds, that takes more action then just extending your arm to the food that’s right in front of you. This also works for snacks; don’t take the bag of potato chips or M&M’s with you to the couch, but fill up a small bowl with the quantity you think is acceptable and just eat that.
  • Don’t exaggerate; it’s definitely OK to go out to dinner once in a while and eat what you want without measuring it. The longer you’ve been following the methods above, the easier it gets to estimate your calorie intake based on your experience, if you insist on logging on your ‘cheat day’.

Sources used:


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