Habits are automatic behavior cued by context (where you are, what you’re doing), performed without intention, and with minimal thought. In Part 1 of this series I described how they’re created and why. In Part 2, I described three strategies for blocking or interrupting habits that have already been cued. In this third and last article in the series, I will describe the most effective way to break a habit – avoiding the cue – and how to create new, positive habits.
There are thousands of blog posts about how to break habits and create new ones. My advice will be a little different. As with the previous articles in this series, the strategies I recommend are based on controlled studies written by psychologists and published in refereed professional journals.
In Part 1 of this series, I described what habits are, how they are created, and how you can tell the difference between emotional eating and habit eating. It takes many rewarded repetitions for a habit to be created and that’s good, because once habits are created they are extremely hard to break. Habits are automatic behavior cued by context (where you are, what you’re doing), performed without intention, and with minimal thought. When performing a habit your mind is not engaged, and that’s a huge obstacle to change. Resolving to do better, an effective strategy for non-habits, doesn’t help with habits, though thousands of blog posts offer this type of advice.
In researching this article, I read controlled studies written by psychologists and published in refereed professional journals to find out what really works. There are two general strategies: (1) avoid the context that cues the habit routine, or (2) block or interrupt the habit routine after it’s been cued. Avoiding cues is most effective, but not always practical. I’ll talk about that in Part 3 since it’s related to creating new habits. In this article I’ll describe three strategies for blocking or interrupting habit routines after they’ve been cued.
Sometimes you eat because you’re hungry and the food tastes good. But often you eat because it’s noon and you always eat at noon. Or you just got home and you always eat when you first get home. You may not be hungry and the food may not be tasty, but you eat it anyway. Then afterwards you think, "Why did I eat that? Next time I won’t!" But next time, you do it again.
This is habit eating. Habits are overlearned behaviors that are cued by something in your environment (for example, time of day or just arriving home), and performed automatically with little attention or thought. Habits are not goal-directed – you’re not eating to satisfy hunger or experience taste. So why are you eating??
This wonderful talk is by Dr. Brené Brown, a researcher professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work. It’s entertaining (you won’t be bored!) and touches on some profound truths. Very worth watching!
From the moment you are born, being fed is strongly associated with comfort and love. For infants, food and hugs go together, and that emotional imprinting stays with you for life. Cooking for someone is a way to show love. A box of chocolates is a traditional gift of love on Valentine’s Day. So it’s no surprise that loneliness is one of the most common triggers for emotional eating. Food is an emotional surrogate for love.
Everybody feels passing loneliness now and then, but that’s not the kind of loneliness that people eat over. The kind of loneliness that you eat over is the aching kind that feels never-ending, and grows out of another problem that needs solving. Sometimes loneliness is situational – for example, moving to a new place. But if you’ve had plenty of time to develop social contacts and you’re still lonely, you’re "chronically lonely". That’s the hardest type of all, and the subject of this article.
Why do chronically lonely people often feel lonely even when they’re with other people? Why do they often resist spending time with others? Why do they often find it so unbearable to be home alone in the evening? And what is the solution?
A lot of emotional eaters eat fast – not just a little bit fast, but extremely fast, minimally chewing their food, and raising the next bite to their mouth before the bite they’re chewing is swallowed. Everybody knows the reasons not to do this:
You barely taste your food or experience having eaten it, and thus need more to feel satisfied.
Your body doesn’t have time to give you physical cues of satiation, so you eat painfully past full.
Insufficient chewing causes problems with digestion that are uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.
Slowing down is desirable, but the tricks people use to do this – eat with the opposite hand, count your chews, or (most bizarre) use an iPhone app that rings a bell when you’re allowed to take the next bite – are as “tail wagging the dog” and doomed to failure as dieting to control emotional eating.
If you want to stop emotional eating, you need to understand why you’re doing it and address the underlying issues. If you want to stop fast eating, you need to understand why you’re doing it and address those issues. So why do you do eat so fast?
People are overweight either because they eat too much food or they eat the wrong food (too many processed foods, too many sweets). But it is not for lack of knowledge of what to eat, and this is a crucial point. Most overweight people could write a book about nutrition and what they "should" be eating. They know what to do, but they don’t do it. Why?
It’s not that fat people are weak or morally deficient. It’s that there is a compulsive aspect to overeating. Part of it is the physical effect of processed food – sugar, salt, and fat. But this isn’t the whole story, and it’s not even the biggest part of the story because people can and do learn to eat moderate amounts of these types of foods.
The main reason for overeating is emotional eating – stress eating. And here’s the thing: dieting can’t fix that.
It’s holiday time. Those of us in the U.S. had our Thanksgiving feast just a few days ago. Jews around the world are about the celebrate the first night of Channukah, and then right after that is Christmas. No rest for the weary tummy!
There is no better time to return to Normal Eating. That certainly beats stressing out about the holidays and eating yourself sick as you fight with yourself over every mouthful.
The Normal Eating Forum is the companion support group to my book, Normal Eating for Normal Weight. I’ve noticed quite a few old familiar names reappearing in the Normal Eating Forum recently, and it’s so nice to see them again. How about you? Are you struggling with food? Come back to Normal Eating! If you purchased a lifetime membership, you can come back at any time. If you don’t remember your password, you can use the “forgot password” link to retrieve it – assuming you still have the same email address. If you don’t, just email me and I’ll get you set up again. If you’re not yet a member, join us!
Right now I eat a junkfood diet and have for decades. I don’t eat fruit or vegetables hardly ever. I never learned to prepare dinner every night. I live mostly on pizza, hamburgers and fries, Chick-Fil-A and restaurant food. I also have a sugar jones. I fall asleep, wake up an hour or two later and then when half awake go down and binge on cookies, candy, cake, and other sweets.
I understand stage one is about legalizing all food. I know I have to stop thinking of these foods as “bad” and beating myself for eating them. How can I lose my shame over eating these foods?
She is right that there is no shame in food choices – ever – and that you have the right to eat whatever you want. But she is wrong that the foods she’s eating are not “bad”. They’re pretty bad nutritionally, though she still has ever right to eat them. It’s also not true that the first stage of Normal Eating is “legalizing”. She’s confusing Normal Eating with some other attuned eating programs that I think make a serious mistake.
I found out recently that the counseling degree I received in 1980 became licensable in New York State in 2005. Had I learned this when it first happened, I could have been grandfathered in and my services would have been eligible for insurance reimbursement. But unfortunately, I found out only a few weeks ago – long after the grandfathering deadline of January 1, 2006. I could still go through the licensing procedure, but it would take years and may not be realistic without the grandfathering – all of which caused me to reassess my fees.
I originally based my fees on what’s usually charged for life coaching, which can be quite expensive (double what I’d been charging) and is never covered by insurance. But in practice I’ve found that my fees put coaching in reach only for affluent clients, and I don’t want to only help affluent clients. So last week I decided to significantly lower my coaching rates.
I posted about this in the Normal Eating forum, and it led to an interesting discussion about phone coaching – who needs it, when do you need it, how does it work? Questions and answers follow.