How to Change Your Eating Habits

Our Eating Experts

Why it’s difficult to change your eating habits

Change is hard. Struggling with eating habits can be one of the most difficult challenges you might face, because food is an inevitable and vital element of everyday life.

You might start off the week with good intentions to eat healthy. On Monday morning, your plan to follow an all-organic, keto, or vegetarian diet is solid. Or maybe your goal is to eliminate sugar, or reduce your salt intake. You start off strong.

But then lunch-time rolls around. You’re hungry and distracted by the demands of the day, and you give in to old habits. “Just this once,” you might tell yourself, “back on track tomorrow.” But tomorrow, the same stressors come into play, and your good intentions are derailed almost before you even started.

The trouble is, we often try to change too much all at once — and we can end up dooming our best intentions right from the start.

But by taking small steps, making incremental changes, and practicing some intentional self-kindness, you can start to reclaim control while also promoting self-confidence that spills over into the rest of your life.

Step one: Remember that change happens slowly

From the start, it’s important to understand that lasting change happens slowly, and this applies to changing your eating habits.

It’s easy to get excited about early success with a dramatic shift in your eating behavior — like going cold-turkey on all carbs — but these radical behaviors often fizzle out and don’t result in lasting change.

For instance, a Drexel University study found that weight fluctuations — cycles of losing and gaining weight — that occur early in a weight-loss program correlate to participants losing less weight in the long run, compared to people who make steadier and more consistent progress. 

Changes that are too big and happen too quickly are unlikely to be sustainable. Consider a 2016 Obesity study of fourteen “Biggest Loser” competitors who lost an average of 129 pounds each over 30 weeks — all but one of the participants had regained most of that weight within six years. 

Starting small, however, is more likely to produce positive long-term results. 

“My main tip is to start small and change something that is sustainable,” says Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Laura Faiwiszewski of New York Health & Hypnosis, who specializes in eating disorders, trauma, depression, anxiety disorders, and chronic pain. “Cutting out all carbs or all fats is likely not sustainable (nor advisable for most people). Perhaps first focus on adding things in, rather than taking things out — focusing on more cups of water between meals, or adding a piece of fruit or a vegetable.”

Another helpful example: If you’re used to eating out for most meals, a sudden and dramatic switch to cooking and packing every meal will probably fail. Instead, make a small shift toward preparing one more meal at home each week, and use that as a building block toward lasting change.

Next step: Get real with yourself

If there’s something you want to change, you first need to evaluate your current situation. In other words, it’s time to take a look at your food-based habits. 

For example, do you grab a bag of chips every time you sit down in front of the television? Do you habitually consume the same three margaritas every Friday night when you’re out with friends?

It’s not unusual to have food-based habits that are triggered by boredom, stress, or even fun. Once you know your triggers, you can start to make changes.

Another vital element to establishing new and lasting changes is to think about the long haul. For instance, it can feel motivating to lose a lot of weight very quickly when you’re on a fad diet, but severe calorie restriction or cutting out carbs aren’t eating habits that you can safely sustain for long-term health.

Instead, focus on setting achievable goals for both the short- and long-term future. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon just a week after you struggled to run a single mile, right? You’d try two miles, then five, then ten, and work your way up. When you set smaller and achievable milestones on the way to a larger objective, you’re more likely to achieve that goal. 

And when you achieve one of these smaller, step-wise goals, you increase your motivation to go after the next goal, and then the one after that.

Next step: Learn what your body wants and needs

It’s late afternoon, and you’re craving a snack. But are you actually hungry? Might you instead be sleepy or bored? 

Learning to listen to your body is a key element in changing your eating habits.

Fatigue can increase your appetite. But instead of reaching for extra calories, sometimes what your body really needs is a nap. It’s also common for thirst to feel like hunger, so it’s important to make sure you’re keeping hydrated throughout the day.

But what about food cravings? These can actually point you in the direction of what your body might be missing. Craving salty foods can be a sign of dehydration, for instance, while a chocolate craving can signal lower levels of magnesium or vitamin B.

Keep in mind that you’re more likely to experience food cravings on a restrictive diet. Making sure that you’re eating enough healthy food every day can go a long way to reducing or even eliminating food cravings.

Final step: Be kind to yourself and find your balance

People struggle with food, not because of a lack knowledge about eating but because they alternate between being too restrictive and overindulging. 

If it really is hunger you’re feeling, it’s important not to overindulge. Stress and distractibility are two factors that can lead to habits of overeating — and the bloated discomfort and self-recrimination that often come along with it.

Experimenting with fad diets or severe calorie restriction won’t help you build good, long-term eating habits, and won’t help your stress levels, either. And it’s not your fault! Instead of relying on fallible “willpower” or labeling foods as either “good” or bad,” practicing self-kindness can support you on your way to better habits and better health.

An important step in being kinder to yourself is letting go of the “diet mindset” and unrealistic expectations — and in understanding and giving mindful eating a try.

In simple terms, mindful eating is about being present and paying attention when you eat. It’s about eliminating distractions — like smartphones and television screens — so that you can be aware of every action and every bite of food, instead of defaulting to mindless eating.

Mindful eating relies on engaging all of your physical and emotional senses with every meal. This practice draws your attention to the choices you’re making, and it fosters real satisfaction and gratitude. You might even re-discover true pleasure in eating.

A 2017 review of studies from Nutritional Research Reviews found that mindful eating can “rewire” your brain to promote better eating habits.

Additional benefits of mindful eating include reduced anxiety, reduced shame and guilt around eating, better overall dietary choices, improved wellbeing, potential weight loss, and an improved ability to differentiate between real hunger and other physical and emotional cues.

It’s also okay to indulge a little! Denying yourself particular foods can lead to feelings of anxiety and shame, or even to patterns of disordered eating. Be kind to yourself when reaching for a comfort food, by savoring each bite and taking care to ensure that your overall diet is balanced.

There’s no judgment in mindful eating, only acknowledgment and acceptance. With greater awareness and reduced emotional attachment, you’re in a better position to understand your eating habits and decide what, if any, changes you want to make.

You can also reach out for professional help to develop better, sustainable habits for the long haul — because establishing new eating habits can be complex. You can work collaboratively with an experienced therapist to set individual goals around mind, body, and spirit and create sustainable balance to help you move forward.

The good news is that you can take charge of your eating habits, rather than letting food cravings and unwanted behaviors run your life. By taking an honest look at your present habits, setting achievable goals, and practicing both mindfulness and kindness, you can establish new habits that better align with who you are and what you want for your life moving forward.

Our Eating Experts are Clinical Psychologists at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy that specialize in combining hypnosis and therapy for issues surrounding food. To get in touch or learn more about how combining therapy and hypnosis can help you, please contact us here.

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