How can your everyday habits help—or hinder—you when it comes to maintaining a healthy body weight? Learn how changes in your behaviors today can set you on a track for a future of healthy eating.
Weight management has little to do with deprivation and restriction and everything to do with behavior patterns as they define eating style.
At the core of behaviors are triggers—those events in daily life that set off responses that derail the best efforts at weight management. Being aware of those triggers and developing appropriate responses will result in streamlined weight loss and help you feel and look better.
Where do those triggers that cause poor eating habits come from? Let’s examine triggers and then take a look at how behavior change can empower you to embrace healthier habits for long-term health.
What Is “Behavior Change”?
Behavior change refers to the act of altering your reactions to stimuli—emotional or environmental—through the positive and negative reinforcement of a new behavior or the reduction of an unhealthy behavior. This is the core driver of most smoking-cessation programs, and it works.
If your morning routine is to order a large latte from the coffee shop you pass by every day on your way to work, it’s become a habit. You don’t even think about it. It’s an automatic response to go to the café.
We learn to associate certain emotions with our habits: comfort, stress, happiness, boredom—you name it. Likewise, certain environments trigger us to take certain actions. I pass by a local shoe shop every day, and I’m more often than not tempted to go in and try on a pair. Now that I’m aware of this habit of mine, I keep myself in check by taking a different route. Habit extends to so many facets of our lives, for better or worse.
Therein lies the secret to managing your weight: it’s not about cutting out chocolate for the rest of your life; it’s about changing your unhealthy behaviors to healthy ones that keep you satisfied and in control.
What Does Behavior Change Have to Do with Weight Loss and Management?
Eating behaviors are learned and ingrained over time, but the good news is they can be unlearned. It takes time and practice, but becoming aware of your emotions and environment—and understanding how they influence your eating—will empower you to try a different approach.
Here’s a scenario you may find very familiar: cleaning your plate. Even if we are full, we have been conditioned since childhood to think that a clean plate signifies the end of a meal. Environmentally triggered eating behaviors like seeing food, smelling food, or getting together with family or friends may also cause you to eat more.
Consider the story of Jeannine. She would stop by her office’s cafeteria every day at 3 p.m. for a snack. She was senselessly adding 300 to 500 calories to her daily intake. Then a light bulb went off in her head. She wasn’t craving a snack per se; she just needed a break from work. Now, instead of eating a calorie-heavy snack, she goes for a short walk with a colleague, reads an article online, or writes a quick e-mail to a friend.
What are some of your “feed me” triggers? Write them down or type them up, brainstorm ways to manage them, then put your resolutions into action.
How Can I Break Bad Behavior Chains?
The cornerstone of behavior modification is self-monitoring—a clinical term meaning journaling, tracking, or simply writing down the foods you eat, how much exercise you do, and the triggers that trip you up. By writing something down, you become accountable for it; you have evidence of your behavior.
Journaling helps you uncover unconscious eating and why you do it. It also helps you identify what’s tripping up your weight-loss efforts so that you can create a plan of sustainable action to succeed at managing your weight for good. Recognizing your eating cues—the “when,” “why,” and “how” you eat—is the first step to figuring out how to break the unhealthy habits.
When it comes to problem solving, remember this: it’s not about eating carrots instead of buttered popcorn in front of the TV; it’s about not eating in front of the TV. Don’t simply replace one food choice with another. Learn to choose an alternative activity to eating (unless you truly are hungry).
What Happens if I Lapse into an Unhealthy Eating Behavior?
The most important thing is learning to get back on track quickly when you lapse into old behaviors. And you will relapse. You’ll eat too much at your niece’s wedding. You’ll sneak one of your friend’s French fries while he’s in the restroom and then realize you’ve finished them all before he makes it back to the table. It happens. The sooner you react, the easier it is to recover. Do nothing and you may relapse or even collapse.
Don’t Be Discouraged.
Remember, behavior change takes time and practice. Though it may seem tough at first, and there will be moments when you think you can’t do it, the long-term results will be well worth the effort. You’re changing your lifestyle to a healthier one. So, no more Well, I’ll just finish the pint of ice cream today and start my diet tomorrow thinking. You can do this. Every day is an opportunity for a healthier tomorrow.
This chef-worthy dish takes only minutes to assemble. Try it with steamed carrots and green beans tossed with a little olive oil and a snip of fresh dill.
1 cup precooked shredded potatoes
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon garlic salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1¼ pounds mahi-mahi, skin removed, cut into four portions
4 teaspoons reduced-fat mayonnaise
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 lemon, quartered
Combine potatoes, shallot, horseradish, mustard, garlic salt, and pepper in a medium bowl. Spread each portion of fish with 1 teaspoon mayonnaise, then top with one-fourth of the potato mixture, pressing the mixture onto the fish.
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Carefully place the fish in the pan, potato-side down and cook until crispy and browned, 4 to 5 minutes. Gently turn the fish over, reduce the heat to medium and continue until the fish flakes easily with a fork, 4 to 5 minutes more. Serve with lemon wedges.
Makes 4 servings
Nutritional information per serving: calories 205; protein 27 grams (g); carbohydrate 9 g; fat 6 g (1 g saturated, 3 g monounsaturated); dietary fiber 1 g; cholesterol 105 milligrams (mg); sodium 311 mg; potassium 623 mg
6 steps to avoid lapsing into a collapse
1. Ask “Whoa—what happened?”
Evaluate the situation: Ask what might have brought on the lapse.
2. Calm down.
Think objectively. Repeat: “One slip-up does not make me a failure.”
3. Renew your vows.
Remind yourself of how far you’ve come and how disappointed you’d be if this slip derailed your
4. Learn from your lapse.
Considering the cause of your lapse (or what you think it was), what could you do differently to avoid
a relapse in the future?
5. Move it!
Get back on track immediately. Pick a back-on-track strategy (such as walking a mile or starting a new food diary) and go with it; if it works, make it your standard intervention.
6. Call in the troops.
Ask for help. Rely on people who are supportive and who want you to succeed.
How to Journal Effectively
Keeping a journal takes practice and commitment. Here are some tips on effective journaling:
Bite it; write it. Don’t depend on your memory. Immediately record what you eat and drink. That way you’ll avoid the forgot-it factor.
Be specific. Record the type and the amount of food in as much detail as possible. You can also note where you were and how you were feeling, if you think it had an influence on what or how much you ate.
Record calories and fat. Refer to food labels, your calorie- and fat-counting book, product Web sites, or any other reliable source of nutrition information.
Keep a running total. Add up your calories after each entry so that you’ll always have a running total. This will help you plan ahead and be mindful of your calorie budget.