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Food Choices – How to Break from Unhealthy Habits & Form Healthy Ones.

‘Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken’
Warren Buffett

Have you ever determined to make efforts to drink more water, take up an exercise or sport, stop smoking, make healthy food choices and the like; scrunching up all your will power only to come unstuck and all these good intentions to gradually fall by the wayside, and you are back to your old habits that are making you miserable – and maybe feeling depressed by your lack of will power?

How can we create long lasting habits?

What do we need to do that does not rely on our notoriously unreliable will power alone?The answer can lie in what forms a habit in the first place. Followed by what triggers us to continue with that unhealthy habit afterwards. I am going to focus on the food choices we make, but the pattern of behaviour is applicable for many unhealthy habits.

What forms a habit?

A habit starts with a cue, the trigger from the environment that tells the brain to go into autopilot. Next is the routine, the action taken after the cue and lastly the reward which fills a craving in your brain. It’s like an endless loop. Once the habit loop has been identified, it becomes easier to plan on how to change the habit.

Often, we are not even aware of the trigger because we are so focused on the action leading to the reward. In order to take notice of this ‘loop’ of behaviour, it helps to be more aware of the steps to get the reward. Unconsciously we are reacting to a feeling of discomfort in ourselves – whether hunger, boredom, sadness etc.

It helps if you can take a few advance preventative measures to make breaking from unhealthy food choice habits easier.
  • Remove any temptations – When you do your grocery shop only put nutritious foods in your basket. Nothing processed or sweet especially.
  • We keep new habits more successfully if we can team up with a friend for mutual support. Also planning times you might exercise together will help support both of you.
  • Plan meals in advance and batch cook dinners when you have time to make mealtimes more stress free, and reduce the risk of snacking or poor food choices because there isn’t anything else to hand – I’m thinking crisps and biscuits………

The reward

Its important to understand what is happening in our bodies that causes us to seek this ‘reward’ even though we know that particular food isn’t healthy. Its all down to a chemical messenger called Dopamine, a key neurotransmitter involved in craving reward; its also strongly linked to memory, learning and emotion.

Food is essential for survival and a primary stimulus that can activate rewarding brain circuits through taste, smell and sight. Foods that are high in sugar and fat are potent rewards and promote eating, even if you are not hungry. The combination of high fat and high sugar creates a spike in dopamine activity which fills us with a pleasurable sensation, prompting us to reach for those foods more often, which can drive a cycle of overeating and snacking.

With repeated exposure to this food reward, the dopamine adjusts and makes a deeper association with it. For example, even the smell can be a sign of imminent reward and become a cue.

Here’s an interesting example of the potency of sugar and fat combinations. Imagine this experiment – sitting at a table with 2 tablespoons of sugar and a large amount of double cream on its own. Try eating the sugar by itself, next try to eat the cream by itself. Not very palatable and you would likely struggle. Lastly, combine them both together (into whipped cream) and eat it – easy?!

Palatability is a major factor controlling feeding behaviour. Synthetic flavours, found in processed food, not only break the connection between flavour and nutrition, they also set false expectations. Flavour technology fools our brains into experiencing heightened levels of pleasure, increasing dopamine without any nutritional benefits.

I have written before about how big food industries are exploiting and fuelling our dopamine addiction with ‘Frankenfoods’, that contain little or no actual nutrition, directly leading to obesity on a global scale and a host of chronic diseases of the 21st century illness’s; our medical services are buckling. Much as the news is about Big Pharma and the stranglehold pharmaceutical industry has on drug prices and availability, perhaps the same can be said of ‘Big Farma’ in the food industry.

So now we know its all about dopamine reward, how can we stimulate dopamine in a healthy way that’s not associated with nutritionally poor foods?
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Listening to music
  • Getting outside and increasing sun exposure
  • Increase human contact – give someone a hug!
  • Take a cold shower – yes, its true I promise you!

Creating new habits

When we recognise our cue, e.g. being stressed, anxious, tired or bored, instead of repeating our habit, e.g. rummaging around the fridge, eating chocolates while watching television, drinking a bottle of wine. Change your behaviour by going for a walk, doing 5-10 minutes of exercise and the urge to eat will pass over because you will be rewarded by a surge of dopamine not caused by eating an unhealthy food.

Should you be genuinely hungry, and a set mealtime is still some time away, then have a stack of vegetable crudités and humous in the fridge ready to eat, or a piece of fruit like a low Gi apple, or an oatcake with nut butter, also a small piece of chicken or turkey will satisfy that pang.

Making good habits last

Creating good habits is the key to making change last, and lasting habits are formed through context repetition which is essential.
  • Repetition is essential – it can take 15 – 254 days to truly form a new habit. You can find a habit tracker online to see if you can implement some new habits for 30 days consecutively. As with anything new as time goes on, it becomes easier and will soon be automatic.
  • Small steps – focus on changing just 2 or 3 things to start with and once they are formed you can start to make more changes. Sometimes we attempt to ‘re-invent’ ourselves by trying to do too much from the start and are possibly setting ourselves up to fail.
  • Regulate mealtimes – Plan to eat early enough in the evening to allow your body to digest properly, at least 3 hours at the minimum. It is during our deep REM sleep that the body repairs, heals and detoxifies itself. I mention this in my Insomnia blog as a reason people have poor sleep quality. Late evening meals can drive higher blood sugar levels after breakfast the following day, which might cause you to overeat or crave sugar during the day. This can result in dysregulation of hormones involved in appetite.
  • Flavour your food with herbs and spices – avoid all processed foods (mainly high in hidden levels of fat and sugar). Use fresh herbs where possible – see my blog on herbs.
  • Failing to plan is preparing to fail! –Take time to draw up your eating plan and the foods it will contain with a thought out grocery list. Having a plan is known as ‘implementation intention’ and it’s linked with long-term habit adherence.
  • Be gentle with yourself! – If you have read my Goals & Dreams blog you will have seen that one of the reasons we don’t reach these goals is because we are our own harshest critics. Re-phrase your failures as ‘not yet’. Give yourself space to fail and accept that failure is part of the road to success. It helps if we only attempt to change a few things as mentioned above in small steps, and become comfortable with those before we ‘load up’ with intentions.

The role of will power

Is it all about willpower? Well, it’s part of the 3 basic tenets of making and keeping good habits – a clear goal, monitoring and will power. Together they are stronger, like an equal sided triangle all supporting each other. Relying on willpower alone makes you less likely to achieve your good intentions and yet it is precisely what we do when we are trying to create new habits.

Here’s an interesting fact that’s useful to know. Research has shown that our blood glucose levels drop every time we try and exert will power – impairing our subsequent attempts at self-control. Relying on willpower alone often results in failure, but knowing this we can take a look at our nutrient status. For example chromium is important in blood sugar regulation and low levels of B vitamins can reduce energy levels, making it tougher to exert willpower.

Food sources that have chromium are broccoli, green beans, whole grains, beef and poultry, apples and bananas, milk and dairy products. Food sources rich in B vitamins are meat, especially liver, seafood, poultry, eggs, legumes, leafy greens and seeds.

Possibly your diet has not been very nutritious and relied on processed foods; almost certainly you might be deficient in other vitamins and minerals, in which case a good multicomplex supplement might be helpful. Also a daily probiotic to support the whole digestive tract. The essential fatty acids (EPA & DHA), in their natural triglyceride form can support brain function and the maintenance of the brain’s dopamine pathways. Eating oily fish several times a week and pouring a little virgin oil over cooked vegetables and salads will give good essential fatty acids.

When it comes to forming a new habit and hoping to make it a life-time habit, remember just making one small change that turns into a success, can have a ripple effect – automatically reinforcing changes in other areas.

As an aside, if you are trying to stop smoking and have found understanding how our biology and neurological pathways can be harnessed to form healthy habits then may I suggest you take a look at this book

‘Stop Smoking with CBT: The most powerful way to beat your addiction’
By Dr Max Pemberton

Dr Pemberton was a doctor specialised in addiction but found it impossible to quit himself – until he found CBT.

This book was published in 2015 when CBT was relatively unknown, but it is still a brilliant little book for self help with simple explanations and exercises to follow that work for many.