How can I break bad eating habits?

Kerri Anne Hawkins, N06, a registered dietitian and clinical instructor in family medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, weighs in

“If only I could resist the ice cream in the freezer, I would be able shed those last 10 pounds.” I am sure that phrase and many others like it have crossed your mind at least once. When trying to change eating habits, my clients always think that willpower is the key to their success, and that they either have willpower or they don’t. But that type of thinking is self-defeating.

To break a bad eating habit, you need to change your expectations. You need to accept that willpower cannot be the only method used to change behavior. If you keep ice cream in your freezer, guess what? You are going to eat it. There are a rare few in this world who can resist a food temptation. But most of us need to create new habits around our food choices. If you change the cues and choices around you, you don’t have to think and struggle with temptation every time.

It is important for us to acknowledge that our habits never really leave us. They are encoded in us, and the brain really cannot tell the difference between a good habit and a bad habit. The brain just knows that in the end, there is a reward. So the goal is to replace an old bad habit with a new good one.

You do that by setting up new routines. Take the habit of eating ice cream after dinner. Change your after-dinner routine and make fruit smoothies with your kids instead—and don’t buy that gallon of ice cream and keep it in your freezer. When you really want an ice cream cone, head down to the street to the local stand and get a scoop of yummy homemade ice cream and enjoy every bite. 

Here are some basic steps to set yourself up for success by replacing a bad habit with a healthy habit:  

  • Identify the bad eating habit you want to change. Be very specific and start small.
  • Identify the cues that are associated with the bad eating habit.
  • Decide what you need to change in your environment to lead you to choose the new healthy habit.
  • Practice the new habit time and time again. If you have a lapse, start fresh at the next meal.
  • Check willpower at the door—and stop blaming yourself.

Here’s an example. John always leaves the dinner table feeling Thanksgiving-dinner stuffed. He tells himself each night before dinner that he is not going to overeat. Again and again, he leaves the table too full and feeling bad about his lack of willpower. How can he change this habit?

He identifies his bad eating habit as overeating at dinner and feeling stuffed. The cues associated with it are feeling like he has to finish everything on his plate. So he swaps his 12-inch dinner plate for an 8-inch salad plate for all his meals. He can still clean his plate, but no longer feels so stuffed.

In the end, small changes like this are the keys to getting the results you want, not heroic exercises of willpower.

Registered dietician Kerri Anne Hawkins is a graduate of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

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