What Should I Eat

The famous question everyone who is trying to have healthier eating habits asks. Friends and family will usually throw in a few ideas about this super food or suggest this new fad diet. The elephant in the room is this; most of us already know what we should be eating and we should be asking ourselves not our friends and family. Think about it; very few people would start a debate arguing in favor of fast food being healthy. We however continue to eat foods we know our bad for us because of their convenience, our lack of time, our emotional connection to food, our lack of cooking skills, etc…

Instead of asking yourself what you should be eating consider asking; what could I eat more of that I’m already eating and I know is healthy? This might be a specific salad, certain fruits or side vegetable. Why this works is because you don’t have to invest anything to make it happen. You know you like the dish therefor you wont be wasting money buying new ingredients you might not like. You already know how to prepare it so there is less of a chance the ingredients will sit in your fridge until they rot because you simply don’t have time or the desire to learn how to prepare and cook a new vegetable.

The new great superfood of the month is great but it wont help you if you don’t like it. You might convince yourself to include it in your diet for a while but ultimately behavioral science shows we don’t continue or develop new habits when they don’t make us happy. More importantly is the fact that most fruit and vegetables could be considered superfoods. All fruits and vegetable have nutrients and vitamins in different degrees, the ones the media labels as superfoods are usually denser in them but again all fruits and vegetables are good for us. Even potatoes, which get a bad rep, can be beneficial to our health. A side note, the main issue with potatoes is the way we tend to prepare them, adding cream, butter and cheese which makes them high in calories and a lot more unhealthy.

Food diversity is still important especially if you have a very limited diet, we should try to incorporate new exciting foods so we don’t get food boredom. It’s also important to diversify our diet to get all the nutrient and vitamins we need. However if you’re at the beginning of you’re health journey with limited cooking skills or time and not sure where to start, eating more of what you already know might be just what you need. When you’re ready to incorporate a new food, try a new color. The vitamin and nutrient content of food varies more drastically in different colored fruits and vegetable, by eating the rainbow you make sure you get a little bit of everything your body needs.

Your Inner Self Talk

What does your inner self sound like? Is it positive and encouraging? Or negative and depressing? Our inner self talk is extremely powerful, after all it’s the message you’re telling yourself and your brain. Telling our brain something over and over again will encourage it to come true! Next time you hear your inner self speak, notice what message is being sent. If it’s not supportive, understanding or positive; change it. Explore your own thoughts and find out why you thought something negative about yourself.

Think back of a time where you really wanted something, whether it’s a promotion or getting good grades. If the voice in your head while you were studying was “I’ll never retain all this information” or “I’m not smart enough to understand this” chances are you had a much harder time studying and possibly never got the grades you wanted. It’s not surprising because you’re sending mix messages to your brain, on one hand you’re trying to learn something while also telling it you can’t. The same idea applies when your competing for a promotion, if you go about your day telling yourself “I’m not going to get it” chances are you wont. Your thoughts are projected on the outside, increasing your stress and in the end decreasing your work performance.

When it comes to our health and our body image, the same logic applies. If we think after eating “I can’t believe I ate all this junk food, I’m bad or I’m unhealthy or any negative word you use” than that’s what your brain thinks you are. A bad unhealthy person will continue to make bad unhealthy decisions in the future. Next time you find yourself in that situation change your self talk with something positive. You could say “I ate junk food today because I felt very hungry and stressed, tomorrow I’ll be healthier and plan my meals ahead to avoid relying on junk food” or anything else that’s positive and speaks to you. Apply the same principal when you look at yourself in the mirror, instead of focusing on your flaws focus on your what you like.

Another way to realize how bad your self talk can be is replacing yourself with a friend. Next time you have a negative thought ask yourself; if your friend did the action your reproaching yourself for doing would you give them the same answer? Chances are you wouldn’t, we don’t call our friends unhealthy, bad, fat, ugly or any other word that has a negative meaning to us. If your friend overeats at dinner or gains a few pound you’d say it’s okay and you’d comfort them if needed. Start treating yourself like a friend, this will require conscious effort but the effort will be worth it.

Unhealthy Snacking

Snacking also known as a convenient way to eat food quickly or on the go is a major contributor to the rise in obesity. When we think back, not that long ago, a snack would mostly be fruits or vegetables if it was part of our day at all. Do you remember as a child being told by your parents “you can’t eat now you’ll spoil your appetite for dinner”. As we grew up and the convenience world built up the classic three meals per day slowly disappeared. For many it was replaced by all day snacking (also known as grazing) or at least by skipping 1 meal and replacing it with convenience food.

What is the difference between having a meal and a snack? The Oxford dictionary describes a meal as eating a reasonably large amount of food in one sitting and a snack as a small amount of food eaten between meals. Arguably another difference could be the setting in which both are consumed, on the go vs sitting down at a table. We all fall in the trap of thinking “if I replace a meal with a snack and therefor eat less I will be healthier”. We may even replace a meal with a snack without thinking about it, like when we rush out the door and don’t have time to eat breakfast. Why is this a problem?

When we replace a meal with a snack we don’t actually end up eating less calories. Think about the types of snack you eat; a granola bar, chips, nuts, candy, cookies, fruit, vegetable, protein bar, protein shake, etc. Most of the snack item we eat are high in calories and not filling. In other words they can pack as many calories as a meal in a smaller amount and without making us feel full. The lack of fullness will make it harder for us to make it to our next meal without being hungry. At this point one of two scenarios generally plays out.

You rush out the door in the morning, have a protein shake in the car and get to work. While you’re sitting at your desk an hour later you feel hungry, this is normal for you so you’re prepared. Your desk is stashed with all the snacks you can dream of. There might even be an area filled with goodies like chocolate and cookies at work. You might also work in a place where on most days at least one of your co worker will bring in baked goods in the morning. It’s almost impossible to say no, you’re hungry and lunch is so far away, so you have another little something. You might have lunch or you skip lunch altogether and continue to have snacks throughout your shift. Now think back about what you’ve eaten, how many of your snacks were actually fruits and vegetables? How many of them contained good quality protein? How many of them had any nutrients at all other than some that may have been chemically added? We feed our bodies calories with very little nutrients and we expect it to perform at 110% all day, somethings has got to give which is usually our health. Our nutrient starved bodies have a harder time saying no to unhealthy foods, most snack foods also don’t fill us up making us more prone not only to over eat but to make bad decision on what we’re eating throughout our day.

You might be thinking “I don’t snack until later in fact I don’t eat anything until the afternoon”. You are so rushed for time in the morning you don’t even have time to think about eating. When you finally have time to eat you’re starving, you eat a very big meal but you tell yourself it’s okay because you have to make up for the ones you’ve missed. You might even just have a small meal because you don’t want to over eat but you end your meal hungry. When we go long period of time without eating we slow down our metabolism, our brain goes in starvation mode and we tend to not only overeat but eat high fat high calorie foods. If you go on with your day constantly feeling hungry you are more prone to eat unhealthy foods. In the end you will feel like you lack will power because at some point you’ll end up eating foods you know are unhealthy. Remember, this process has nothing to do with will power, it’s how are brain and body evolved to ensure survival.

A trick to avoid unhealthy snacking? Don’t skip meals. Try not to let yourself become too hungry and plan ahead. Wake up earlier in the morning to have time to sit down and eat breakfast. At first you wont be hungry when you wake up, your body is used to your routine but it doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you. You especially won’t feel hungry in the morning if you snack a lot at night, slowly with one change at a time, you can transform your eating habits. A snack can be wonderful and healthy, especially if you’re living with diabetes. Keep to 1 snack and use it to carry you to your next meal not as a meal replacement. Planning ahead can make sure you have healthy snacks like fruits, vegetables or nuts available when you need them.

What’s Worth Your Time?

Making time for our health is something most of us don’t do at all or don’t do enough. It’s so easy to simply state; I don’t have time to meal prep, I don’t have time to cook, I don’t have time to exercise, I don’t have time to “insert here”. Ask yourself this; what do you have time for? How many minutes are you wasting in your day without even thinking about it?

We are so use to telling ourselves excuses sometimes we never take the time to stop and think about it. Most of us spend more time than we realize on our multitude of devices. It’s too easy nowadays, we hear our phone vibrate and think “I’ll just quickly check this text message”. Next thing you know you also noticed a notification for this new you tube video and BOOM 1 hour has gone by. Was it worth your time?

Your time is worth money, literally, most of us get paid by the hour so spend it wisely. Is binge watching 3 hours of TV worth it? That’s almost half of a typical work day, think about all you accomplish at work. Think about all you could accomplish at home in that time. Something like doing the dishes takes on average about 10 minutes, cooking a meal can take about 30 minutes, doing your weekly meal prep can take 1-2 hours. Was binge watching TV worth your time? Was it worth the consequence on your health?

If you read this and think “yes, it was absolutely worth my time” than that’s awesome. We all like to spend our time differently but if you’re struggling with your health and know you don’t always spend your time wisely, try to be more aware of it. The elephant in the room is often tiredness. We are exhausted from our work day, raising our children, running around for other people. We put our own needs in the backseat and when we actually have an hour to ourselves we want to do NOTHING.

There is no easy solution, our life nowadays is fast paced. If you do feel exhausted try taking a nap instead of watching mindless TV or playing on any other device you have. Better yet, look at your sleep routine, are you getting enough sleep? Maybe try going to bed earlier or if you have a flexible schedule start your day a little later. We often get in this vicious cycle of being exhausted but not ready for bed so we end up mindlessly playing on our electronic devices. They all have bright lights and trick our brain in thinking it’s daytime, our body start fighting the tiredness telling us it’s daytime, we should be awake. The end result, we end up going to bed late and wake up tired the next morning and continue the same behavior of the day before. If this story sounds familiar, break the cycle.

Breaking the cycle can be trickier than just making the decision to do so. Most of the time to break a vicious cycle is to break a habit. In order to break a bad habit we have to avoid our habit cue. Here is an example; if spending hours on social media is your go to mindless activity try keeping your phone in a different room far away from you. You could even try locking it up in a safe or have a family member hide it for a certain amount of time. That way your cue, which is hearing your notifications, would be out of hearing reach and you would have an easier time avoiding your bad habit. A great way to help yourself build new better habit like cooking would be to tell yourself; after I finished cooking I will go get my phone and look at social media for X amount of time. Now you gave yourself a reward for doing a behavior that will help you improve your health. With time this new behavior will become a habit and instead of going home and automatically playing mindlessly on your phone. You will go home, put your phone out of hearing reach, cook dinner and then give yourself time to look at social media for an X amount of time.

This example might not resonate with you, there are a million other ways and reason to spend our time elsewhere than on ourselves. Challenge yourself and find out where are you spending your time? Are you wasting any of it on something you don’t truly enjoy? Could you find time somewhere to practice activities that would help you improve your health?

The Food Industry

Obesity started increasing rapidly in the 1990’s in the United States and is still on the rise today. We still have much to learn like how to avoid having our brain and hormones crave the foods we know are making us sick. In truth, we not only have to fight ourselves to make daily conscientious decision to live healthier lives but we have to fight the giants of the food industry.

Did you know some of the biggest food companies in America where bought by tobacco companies in the 1960’s? It’s terrifying to know a company which made billions by selling us cigarettes and caused numerous health issues also made billions selling us food. As we got busier and busier going from one income households to two, they got busy making everything convenient for us. Convenient is great, in fact many household wouldn’t survive today’s life without it. It also comes at a cost, our health.

Would you be surprised to learn the CEO’s of all the major food industry leaders knew what they were doing all along. To them your health had a price. In fact, since the 60’s every time the public became concern about certain ingredients in convenience food the giants of the industry found a way to counteract it.

When fat became known as a leading cause for heart disease and whole milk consumption went down, they turned to cheese and started adding it everywhere. Fat is essential in making us eat more because unlike sugar, a food item rarely gets too fatty. In fact, when the fat is well hidden people tend to eat 10% more than they normally would if they were aware of the fat content. We don’t get tired of fat the way we do with sweets, making it a dangerous ingredient for our health. From the food industry’s perspective it’s the perfect ingredient, the more we eat, the more we buy.

When sugar became a concern they created fruit concentrate. We now know fruit concentrate is sugar extracted from fruit but sugar none the less and no more better for us. They also started incorporating other sources of sugar such as high fructose corn syrup, barley malt, cane juice, beet sugar etc. This way sugar wasn’t the first item on the ingredient list and the item appeared healthier. In some cases the sweet ingredient used instead of sugar wasn’t known to be sugar by the general public (dextrose, maltose, galactose, etc). When someone was actively trying to avoid added sugar they could buy this item which still contained added sugar without even knowing it.

Knowing this is frustrating if not enraging or even sad, after all most of the convenience food item we fight ourselves not to indulge on were scientifically design to make us overeat. It was done so knowingly so our health could make some men billionaires. It’s also enlightening, living with obesity isn’t a character flaw, it’s not a lack of self control, it’s not caused by being “lazy”. The obesity epidemic happened to us, it wasn’t created by us out of character flaws.

If you found this topic interesting, the book Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss elaborates much more on it.

Change is Hard

Have you ever started an exercise regimen recommended to you by a friend which had worked wonders for him/her but isn’t doing anything for you? This happens to most of us, our bodies respond differently to exercise based on our body type, genetics, brain but also our lives. We often look for the magic cure, the one thing that will work for us and change everything. The truth is most people don’t like to talk about how hard it is to change their food or exercise habits, how hard it continues to be day after day. When given a compliment they’ll glow and put it in their motivation box for later. When asked how they did it, they’ll give you an exercise routine or a diet. The true secret to successfully becoming healthier is giving the credit where it belongs, to the person day after day. We also have to accept what health looks like for us.

What worked for your friend probably wont work for you, not because there’s something wrong with you but simply because you’re not them. Here are some facts; everyone reacts differently to change, change is hard and embracing change is embracing progress. To become a healthier you, you will need to embrace change permanently. To be able to do this day after day you need to find out what type of change works for you, your body and your life. The changes you are able to implement might not lead to your ideal figure or even health, but any change in the right direction will definitely lead to a healthier you.

When you look at someone who has changed their health around keep it mind it takes longer for people to notice change in others. By the time you ask them for advice they are months or even years in the process. The food choices they make every day evolved as they changed, it did not drastically change overnight, the same for their exercise routine. They spent many nights feeling discouraged at their lack of progress but made the conscientious decision to keep changing and maintain the change they had already made. They might even have gone through weight loss surgery but aren’t ready to talk about it.

Most people who make drastic changes don’t succeed. When we create too big of a calorie deficit we will either end up eating more to compensate for the lost energy or feel very tired and be unable to keep up with our exercise routine. Moving our bodies for weight loss alone can be disappointing when we don’t achieve the expected results. Dig deep in yourself and ask, am I looking to make a change in my life because I want to lose weight or because I want to be healthier? It’s normal to want to lose weight, the world is constantly telling us to do so. When we look inside ourselves as to why we are exploring the idea of weight loss many will say it’s because of their health. We don’t want to live with obesity, we don’t want to have diabetes or heart failure. Focusing on health can be extremely rewarding and a better motivator of change. You might sleep better at night from day 1 or you might even feel energized from incorporating exercise into your day. You might notice yourself getting stronger and you might even notice changes in your muscles. Your clothes might start looking differently on your body, they might become looser or fit better. Your lab work might improve at your next doctor’s visit. All that sometimes happen before the scale moves!

Our bodies react differently to change, some of us tend to build muscle fast. Consider David who was just diagnosed with obesity, this news was a shock to him and motivated him to start lifting weights again. After a month, David steps on the scale to see his weight has gone up. He’s frustrated because he’s been putting in a lot of work. When David steps off the scale, he gets dressed and looks at himself in the mirror. He feels good, maybe the scale hasn’t moved but his clothes are looser on him and he can see the impact of a month of weight lifting on his muscles. He decides he doesn’t care about the number on the scale and will continue his workouts. It would of been easy for David to look at the scale, get discouraged and stop his exercise routine, which is what happens more often than not when we focus on weight alone.

It’s hard for most people not to focus on the scale. If you have a hard time not checking your weight daily, throw it out. Any obsessive behavior around our weight should be discouraged. You shouldn’t check your weight more than once a week because our weight fluctuates from day to day by 1-5 pounds. Try focusing on your weekly or even monthly weight trends, if you feel the need to keep track of it. Your health is what truly matters in the end, try tracking health cues along with your weight; happiness, hunger or energy levels are a few examples.

If you’re reading this and thinking you’re ready to implement some changes in your life, remember there’s never a one size fits all. Change involves changing our habits which takes time. It’s important to focus on your health first and find what works for you but also what is realistic. Understand and accept the fact that you probably won’t get the results you want in the time you expect. Keep in mind some people are genetically not incline to enjoy exercise, in fact a study on family and twins demonstrated that 30–70% of the variation in individual exercise is inherited. You can’t change your genetics, be kind to yourself and find something that works for you and your body.

Should I Count My Calories?

Counting calories can be a great way to monitor your food intake but it’s not for everyone. The main risk with this method is reducing our calories too drastically by following a 1500 or 2000 calorie restriction recommended by the internet or an app. Someone who normally eats 3000 calorie would find it difficult to change to a 1500 calorie eating pattern overnight. If they successfully reduce their calorie by such a deficit they become at high risk for metabolic adaptation and weight regain (for more information on this refer to the post weight regain).

Counting calories can also lead to the development of eating disorders by encouraging an obsession with food intake. Consider Alice, who is a young professional just starting out her career. After a year at her desk job she realizes she is gaining weight, her doctor even told her she is now living with obesity. Alice decides to go on a calorie restriction of 1500 calories. After about 6 month she has lost weight and feels great but she’s hit a plateau. She decides she needs to lower her calories even more, she goes down to 1300 calories per day. When the second plateau hits 4 months later she decides to start exercising 30 minutes daily, which she is convinced will also improve her low energy levels. Despite her strict adherence to her calorie restriction and exercise she continues to hit plateau after plateau. It’s been 3 years since the start of her life changes and Alice is now consuming 700 calories per day and exercising 2 hours daily. She is exhausted and her job performance is decreasing, she is no longer living with obesity but she isn’t as small as she wants to be. Her friends and family don’t notice her eating behavior and since she doesn’t look malnourished her doctor only congratulates her on her weight loss. From obsessing over her food intake and her weight Alice is developing anorexia. For Alice it might go unnoticed for a very long time as she started with a heavier weight and isn’t the malnourished picture of anorexia. Her weight loss journey originally intended to improve her health backfired and caused her to develop an illness that can be just as devastating on her health as obesity.

Alice’s story is an extreme case but unfortunately this scenario happens more often than we think. Another, even more popular eating disorder that can develop by counting our calories is binge eating. This disorder is described as frequently consuming extreme amounts of food in one sitting while feeling like our eating behavior is out of our control. By counting our calories and causing extreme calorie deficit rapidly we put ourselves at risk simply because we become desperately hungry. At one point our brain signals for calorie dense food will take over. Sadly after a binge episode people tend to feel very disappointed in themselves, it leads to thoughts such as “I just don’t have enough self control” or “I lack willpower”. Those thoughts lead to stress and sometimes feelings of depression which in turn might exacerbate the developing disorder. Most importantly those thoughts are not true, it is not about willpower or self control but simply our bodies adaptive system for survival.

On the other side, calorie counting can be great to keep us accountable. Sometimes we don’t realize all the calories contained in our snacking. The problem is most people start a calorie restriction without knowing how much calorie they normally consume. If your considering this method take a week or 2 to keep a calorie journal or track your calorie intake in an app. This will help you in two ways, it’ll help you practice keeping track of your calories and let you know if this is a feasible option for you long term. It will also give you a baseline, if you find out you consume about 3500 calories per day going to 3200 or 3300 calories per day would be a great start. Simply keeping a food journal without counting calorie can also go a long way, you might notice specific times you tend to snack on calorie dense items and explore the root cause. Counting calories can also help you if you don’t know much about nutrition and appropriate serving size. For example, if you give yourself X amount of calorie for a snack and you want a nut bar. Counting your calories might encourage you to look at the nutrition labels and become aware of healthier options. Another example, if you only have X amount of calories to eat for a snack you might explore option you normally wouldn’t that will provide you a bigger portion like fresh fruits or vegetables.

If you are considering calorie counting as a weight loss approach, assess your relationship with food and your personality. It’s important to start with a healthy food relationship and maintain it through the process. Some personalities are more prone to develop eating disorders; do you tend to obsess over things? Do you have a history of an eating disorder? Finally, if you decide to count your calories and notice becoming obsessive or developing a distorted relationship with food, stop counting. Change is very difficult but you can still make it enjoyable, appreciate how the process of being aware of your food intake changes your view of certain food. Even try to analyze how that new found awareness changes your daily food habit.

Last piece of advice, if you’re constantly hungry, you’re restricting yourself too much!

Salt is Salt

Sodium or salt is a flavor enhancer, it’s main property is to make our food taste good. On top of that it also helps preserve food allowing it to stay longer on the shelfs at the grocery store. This is why salt is now in almost all of our food product in monstrous amounts. Salt has been known for a while to play a big role in the development of heart disease, hypertension and high blood pressure. Yet most of us are already hooked and find it very difficult to stay away from it. The salt suppliers don’t make it easy either, a quick google search will tell you there’s over 20 different types of salt claiming to be better for us than the other types. What’s the truth?

Salt is salt. The effect it has on our health remains the same no matter if you eat sea salt or pink salt. The difference in type refers mostly to were the salt originated from and sometimes how it was processed. Despite all this, lack of information is not what is keeping heart disease on the rise. According to the CDC about 70% of our salt consumption comes from restaurant and pre-made meals.

Salt is salt.

The solution seams simple, we should just cook at home. However we all know deciding to make the majority of our meals at home is far from easy. A lot of it has to do with lack of time but also habit. We’ll often say to ourselves we don’t have time to cook, we come home from work too late to start a meal. This can be fixed by planning ahead, if we cooked our meals on the weekend being ready for the week we would have both home made meals and we wouldn’t have to cook after our work day. Then someone might say well I don’t know how to cook. This can also be a fairly quick fix, buy a recipe book and follow the instruction or attend a cooking class (you can even find some that are offered online). Why don’t we do it when the cost of not doing it is our health?

It comes down to habits, we have our weekly habits and our weekend habits and it’s hard to change it. Some of it can also be attributed to the way our brain functions, we have a harder time seeing long term benefit of an action vs the immediate results of another. When we try to be prepared by making most of our meals on the weekend our brain thinks about the immediate work that entails and not the reward of having home cooked meals all week. Change is hard but not impossible, we mostly fail to change because we try to do it to fast and change too many things at once. Understandably so, someone who just had a heart attack is scared and wants to make changes right away. Sadly, too often the changes stop the second the fear fades and the person is out of the hospital and thrown into his or her previous environment and habit cues. If you want to make a change in your habits start slowly, you might even feel at first like you’re not making any changes at all. Never forget the story of the rabbit and the turtle.

Consider Susan who never cooks, she has a very busy life and doesn’t think she has time. The idea of adding cooking which would take hours out of a day feels very overwhelming. She was just diagnosed with hypertension and wants to try. She starts by buying a recipe book. For the first month every Saturday she looks at the recipes before grocery shopping, but doesn’t cook any meals. She slowly starts appreciating looking at the recipes, they look good and she would love to eat some of the dishes. The second month she takes it a step further, she looks at the recipes picks one and writes a grocery list for the ingredient. She still doesn’t actually buy the ingredients and does not cook the dish. She only bought the ingredients and cooked a meal when the process of finding a recipe and making a list became a habit. After all that time of looking at the recipes when she finally made one her reward was immense from all the anticipation and encouraged her to make another meal the following Saturday. She would continue to only make 1 meal per week until that became a habit, at which point she would repeat the process for two. Starting by for a full month only picking a second recipe.

It might take her years of habit building but eventually Susan will eat the majority of her meals from her own cooking. She didn’t even focus on low sodium meals, she needed to focus on developing the skill of cooking first. Simply by avoiding eating at restaurant and frozen meals her salt intake over time decreased dramatically since most home made recipes will contain much less sodium than a bought meal. Susan was an example of someone who didn’t cook. Everyone starts somewhere different when it comes to food. Find your starting point and make a small change, over time you’ll change your life.

What We Do Without Thinking

Have you ever experienced doing a task without remembering doing it? This can be as simple as flushing the toilet. When we do such task without mental recognition it’s usually because they are habits of ours. A habit can be very good because in design they happen to allow us to focus our mental energy elsewhere. They are mental loops triggered by a specific moment which are called a cue. Habits can also be harmful, like when we drive through a drive thru automatically after work because that’s what we’ve been doing for years. In this scenario the cue could be the walk to the car when we start thinking about dinner. Habits can be scary when we think about them because we realize a big part of our day to day activities are done without much thinking. In fact, science shows about 40% of your daily tasks are habits.

Being aware of our habits can truly be life changing, continuing with the example above. Let’s call him Robert, one day decides he wants to change his eating habits and eat more at home. He does the grocery and plans to make dinner, for the first week he’s very motivated and this goes well. However on the second week the motivation fades and he’s thinking less about his new changes. After work he gets in his car and finds himself in the drive thru line, once there he decides he might as well order. This is how habits can really hinder our best intentions. Not only would Robert have to get out of the drive thru line but now he has a visual cue and a mental craving for fast food. Habits don’t only make us do things without thinking but they create a craving for an action.

The habit loop was first created by combining language from Charles Duhigg and design from Nir Eyal.

The picture above is a simplistic explanation of how habits are maintained. We receive a cue from our environment or body which in turn creates a craving anticipating the reward. We will then perform an action and receive a reward (a release of dopamine making us feel good). The craving is also a release of dopamine making it hard to resist doing the response. Fighting a food habit can be very similar to fighting ourselves when we become too hungry. Our brain send signals wanting food, because it thinks we are starving it wants calorie dense food and we will often eat it.

Recognizing our own food related habit can greatly increase our chances to achieve a sustainable weight loss. Lets continue with Robert. A solution to fight his habit of stopping at the fast food would be to identify the cue. If the cue was walking to his car after work, a way to stop the cue might be to park in a completely different spot. That way the habit of walking to his car isn’t automatic and he needs to think about where to walk to. Thus disrupting the cue and avoiding creating a craving for fast food. If his cue is finishing work, an option could be to change his end of work time, if possible. He could also take it a step further and change his route to home, making sure he avoids driving in front of the fast food he used to stop at. Overall the way to stop a bad habit is to find it’s cue and make sure we don’t trigger it. If you enjoyed learning about the science of habit, check out James Clear book Atomic Habits or The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg.

How Our Parents Habits Influence Our Current Behaviors

A lot of what we do in our day to day life started by mimicking our parents behaviors. Some of you might have experienced this by receiving comments such as “you remind me so much of your mother”. The adoption of our parents mannerism through years of living with them became habits. A habit is something we do without having to think about it. An example of a day to day habit is tying your shoes, you will always start with the same side without thinking. Another example is someone who “talks with their hands” they often don’t even realize their arms are moving. We also develop food related habit from our parents.

Consider this story, Lucy and Amanda met at work and became fast friend. Lucy is lean while Amanda is living with obesity. After a while of sharing meals together Amanda starts noticing how long it takes Lucy to eat, she also never finishes her plate. When Amanda asks Lucy why she eats so slowly, Lucy laughs and says “I don’t know I just like making sure I chew my food properly”. She adds being aware of how slow she eats in fact she never finishes her meals not because she feels full but because her jaw gets tired and she gets bored. Later, Lucy tells a story about her childhood, specifically how her family all ate very slowly and her mom would constantly remind all of them to take their time and chew so they don’t choke. They also weren’t allowed to leave the table until every one was finished. Without realizing it Lucy had develop the habit of thoroughly chewing her food because of her parents habit to do so and the constant reinforcement. Meanwhile when Amanda thought back on her childhood she remembered all her family eating very fast, barely chewing. Finishing your meal meant you could go play so they all raced to the finish. Her mom also always reminded them to finish their plate because wasting food is bad. She would often overeat because she did not want to waste food. Although slightly adapted this is a true story, Lucy was so thin she often went on fattening diets but could never manage to gain much weight. She would always unconsciously chew her food to the point where she got bored of eating or her jaw hurt and continued to eat very little. On the other hand when Amanda tried to copy her friend as a weight loss method she found it very challenging. She had to continuously tell herself to chew, she would even copy Lucy’s chewing time when they ate together. It worked when she was able to remind herself, however most of the time she would forget and just swallow. Chewing slowly was not her habit.

Without knowing Amanda and Lucy’s parents through their own behaviors put both girls on a very different path with their eating habits. Neither parents thought their behaviors were about appetite control. They simple did as they had been thought by their parents before them. Habits are powerful because most of the time we do them without even knowing. For example if you have the habit of grabbing coffee and breakfast on your way to work at a local bakery you probably do so every morning without much thinking. If one day you decide you want to eat a healthier breakfast and make it yourself at home but still stop at the bakery for coffee despite being full you will still crave food from the bakery. Your brain or habit loop associates the bakery with coffee and food therefor expects it and creates a craving for it. If on the other hand you decide to make breakfast at home and also make your coffee at home avoiding the bakery completely you will find it easier to keep up with the change. You might however have a hard time not stopping at the bakery if you pass directly in front of it, taking it a step further would be to change the route you take to get to work to make sure you avoid visual cues as well. Becoming aware of our food related habits can be a powerful tool against weight gain and encourage weight loss.