Most people have some eating habits that aren’t good for their health and weight. Do you? If so, you have probably considered changing those bad habits. This is often easier said than done. Humans are creatures of habit and it can be challenging to modify certain behavior. Challenging – yes, but impossible – no! Fixing bad eating habits is an achievable goal and this post aims to show you how to make it happen. Scroll down to see some of the most effective tips to change bad eating habits successfully.
1. Think about your expectations
It’s not uncommon for people to feel they are not worthy of something better or habits that are good for them. Many bad eating habits may stem from negative thoughts people have about themselves. A person who feels horrible about oneself may go on to engage in eating behaviors that somehow match their feelings. In this case, changing the foods you eat is not enough. It’s not just about eating foods that are considered good, they need to make you feel good as well.
To change bad eating habits successfully in a way you feel good about yourself, you need to think about your expectations. For instance, many people expect happiness when they are trying to lose weight. However, when that happiness doesn’t always happen, they give up. A study from PLoS One followed 1979 subjects for four years and found weight loss didn’t have a significant psychological benefit. On the flip side, these findings weren’t linked with subjects who remained at the baseline weight or gained more pounds. What’s more, subjects who were trying to slim down were likely to report depressed mood (1).
IMPORTANT: The point here is not to suggest weight loss or changing bad eating habits would make you unhappy. Instead, you need to think about your expectations and clearly define WHY you want to do it. When you know the reason and define it clearly, you will be more motivated to keep trying. Your expectations from this journey should be realistic.
2. Make your goal realistic too
A common reason many people try and fail to change bad eating habits is a poorly-defined goal. Evidence shows goal-setting and action-planning should be a priority for health behavior change (2).
Goal navigates the journey and keeps you on the right track. Without a clearly defined goal, you may find yourself without a proper direction. You know you want to achieve something e.g. changing a bad eating habit, but aren’t quite sure how to make it happen. This leads to trying out different approaches and feeling overwhelmed too quickly. In other words, you expect too much from yourself but don’t have a clear path to follow. Keep in mind it takes about 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and approximately 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic (3). So you need to plan your journey accordingly, be patient, and set realistic goals that will help you out. That way, you won’t overload yourself and quit. Slow and steady wins the race.
In a nutshell, your goal should be SMART (4):
- Specific – clear, well-defined, unambiguous
- Measurable – containing specific criteria to measure your progress
- Achievable – attainable, not impossible to achieve
- Realistic – relevant to your life purpose, within reach
- Timely – with a precisely defined timeline including a starting and target date
Saying you want to change bad eating habits is not enough. You need to get into specifics e.g. I want to eat more fruits and vegetables. This goal is specific, realistic, and achievable. Adding criteria to measure your progress could be that within a few months you want a majority of daily calories to be from healthy sources. You just made that goal timely as well. This is just an example, but it can help you to precisely define your goal to successfully change bad eating habits.
3. Prioritize adding foods, instead of eliminating them
We are always told to increase the intake of certain foods and cut others from our diet. In theory that’s exactly what we need to do, but the practice is different. To achieve that goal you need a different approach. As you start making eating changes you should focus on adding healthy foods into the diet instead of eliminating unhealthy foods like sugars.
Why? Doesn’t that go against this entire goal?
You see, eliminating foods from the diet makes you feel deprived. On the other hand, adding foods to the menu produces a sense of accomplishment. If your strategy revolves around eliminating sugar, for example, you will feel as if you’re missing out i.e. you are deprived. But, if you approach this endeavor with the intention to add foods to your diet e.g. introducing different fruits and vegetables, you will feel like you’re successfully accomplishing your goal. The sense of accomplishment can motivate you to introduce different healthy foods to your diet and, eventually, push the band ones out.
4. Create a specific plan
Once you define your goal to change bad eating habits, the next thing you need is the plan. Your plan should be specific, just like the goal itself. For example, you may want to take a piece of fruit to work every day. Instead of snacks, you can eat the fruit you brought. Another option is to include more fruits and vegetables in your meals. Options are numerous and they are closely tied to the goals. The plan depends on the specific eating habit you want to correct.
5. Keep a food diary
A food diary is a daily log of what you eat and drink during the day. The practice of keeping track of the food you eat is practical for a person who’s trying to change a bad eating habit. Food diaries can do a lot more than that, though. Evidence confirms dietary tracking is an important component of successful weight loss. In one study the subjects who tracked at least five days a week experienced a significant and sustained weight loss over time compared to those who did so fewer days a week or inconsistently. Consistent food tracking is a predictor of weight loss and may also help prevent weight gain (5).
How does a food diary help?
Writing down foods and drinks you take during the day allows you to have a detailed insight into the number of calories you consume. Sometimes we are not aware of how much we, actually, eat. As you go through a food diary regularly, you can evaluate how much you eat and identify strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses in this context are bad habits. Then, you can plan to address and change them accordingly. This is particularly important for persons who aren’t even aware of some of their eating habits until they see a pattern of unhealthy behavior in the diary.
A food diary can be a notebook, printed templates from the internet, or an app. In fact, a study from Obesity Research and Clinical Practice found 70% of subjects considered electronic food diary easier to use, more interactive and enjoyable, and time-efficient (6). An electronic food diary is easily accessible on-the-go since your phone is always with you. Try keeping a food diary and assess your food intake at the end of the week. This practice will help you track your progress, spot other unhealthy eating behaviors, and control calorie intake.
6. Practice mindful eating
Mindfulness refers to paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, on purpose, and nonjudgmentally. The term mindfulness is generally used for meditation, but it can apply to any aspect of life, even eating. The practice of mindfulness has helped people live more intentionally and manage depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and sleeping problems. At the same time, mindfulness has been used to change a person’s approach to eating. Although the primary objective of mindful eating is not to lose weight, in many cases people do slim down (7).
Eating mindfully focuses on a person’s sensual awareness of the food and their experience of the food. The main intention here is to savor the moment, focus on every ingredient, scents, bites, everything. Be more present at the moment when eating, rather than eating “mechanically”. The reason is simple, the more mindful you are, the more you will appreciate food itself. As you develop an appreciation for food and every meal you eat, you will start making healthier food choices and correct bad habits. You will also start eating when you’re truly hungry, instead of when you are tired, bored, anxious, or depressed (8). Keep in mind it takes time to fully adopt and practice mindful eating. Don’t give up. Strong willpower is all you need to succeed.
7. Manage stress
Stress can be emotionally and physically challenging when left unmanaged. Studies show stress is a threat to the natural homeostasis of an organism. As a result, an organism (in this case our body) may react to stress by producing a physical response to regain the balance loss due to an impact of stressful stimuli. An example of disrupted homeostasis is that of feeding behavior. In some people, stress can increase food intake, but in others, it can decrease it. It’s also useful to mention that chronic stress often leads to emotional or binge eating and excessive intake of calories (9, 10).
Since stress can make you use food as a comfort or avoid eating at all, you need to be proactive about this problem. Both eating habits are harmful. We can’t avoid stress entirely because it is the natural response to negative stimuli. What we can do is manage stress. Some options include relaxation, exercise, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or any other activity you find relaxing. By managing stress you will be able to correct unhealthy eating habits.
8. Keep your kitchen clean
In a study from the Environment and Behavior journal the participants who spent time in chaotic and messy kitchens consumed more cookies (103 kcal) than the subjects in neat and tidy kitchens (38 kcal). On the flip side, a chaotic environment didn’t induce significant changes in the consumption of carrots (11).
Basically, just being in a messy and cluttered kitchen can increase the intake of unhealthy food. To change bad eating habits, you also need to make a few changes in the environment too. For that reason, you need to keep your kitchen (and the entire home) tidy and clean. This applies to all environments in which you spend your time. For example, your work desk should be tidy too.
Tidy and neat environments can help you avoid unnecessary snacking and reduce intake of unhealthy foods.
9. Use a smaller plate
Men and women whose bad eating habit is overeating may want to try using a smaller plate. Our brain is complicated and works in a way that makes us eat all food from the plate, even if the body is still hungry. That happens because on a bigger plate your food appears smaller. Reducing plate size can increase estimated satiation (12). Eating all food from the smaller plate helps control calories, but also sends signals to the brain that you’ve had enough and feel full. Smaller plates make food look bigger.
10. Unfollow or block social media profiles that aren’t good for you
No, we are not talking here about influencers that often impose a negative body image on their audience (13). We’re talking about the well-known “food porn” posts and pages. Most of us follow these profiles. They make truly delicious meals and show us how to do it easily. Photos and videos often make us crave those specific foods. In most cases, those are unhealthy foods laden in calories, trans fats, and sugar. Even the studies confirm “food porn” content amplifies our desire for food through a channel of physical and neural responses called “visual hunger” (14, 15).
Even when you’re not physically hungry, you may feel hunger just by looking at those photos and videos. To address hunger, you may be tempted to eat and it’s usually something unhealthy. This leads to overeating, excess calorie intake, indulging in junk food, and all bad eating habits.
Strive to unfollow, mute, or block all pages of this kind. Instead, you may want to follow profiles that focus on posting healthy food content.
11. Reorganize the pantry
Most people are inclined to eat the most accessible foods in the pantry or fridge. The first thing you see is usually your next meal or, at least, a major ingredient in one. To change bad eating habits you need to reorganize the pantry and ensure fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods are most accessible. This step goes hand in hand with a tidy and clean kitchen.
Other Things You Can Do
Besides the above-mentioned 11 tips, other things you can do to change bad eating habits include:
- Turn off the TV when you eat
- Switch to a smaller glass for the intake of sugary drinks
- Cook food at home
- Do meal prepping
- Pick up a hobby
- Get enough sleep
Everyone’s got a bad eating habit or more of them. Although it’s difficult to change an unhealthy eating habit, it’s possible to do it successfully. This post featured 11 practical ways to improve your eating behavior. These changes do not bring instant results. Success comes with time.