By: Collins Hodges, PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Most of us are creatures of habit. We learn from an early age the comfort of predictability. In the same way that a predictable pattern of behavior from a mother to her child is inherently calming, the predictability of patterns affords adults the luxury of coherence and structure. After all, the denial of such would presuppose a life of chaos. However, within this conceptual formulation of the utility of patterned behavior lies a paradox of sorts. What are we to do with comforting patterns that ultimately serve to facilitate self-destructive behavior? For example, patterns of unhealthy eating, although predictable and comforting, fly in the face of one’s self-interest. Those struggling to lose weight are asked to actively move out of their comfort zone and into the realm of the unknown and unpredictable. Naturally, this process elicits fear and tests our capacity to consciously create new behavioral patterns that move us toward our weight loss goals.
The first step involves deconditioning, a process whereby a person first identifies an unhealthy pattern and then challenges its functional utility. Of course, this process is, by definition, very difficult. Unhealthy eating patterns develop over a period of time in response to our childhood development and a litany of past experiences. That is to say, these patterns are hard-wired and highly resistant to change. The key to interrupting unhealthy behavioral patterns and learning new behaviors is developing a heightened self of self-awareness. It would be difficult to change a behavior were you not cognizant of its presence and its deleterious effect on your weight loss goals.
Therefore, the first step is becoming aware that you are repeating an unhealthy pattern and to identify what the pattern is. The second step is to observe yourself closely enough while you’re running the pattern so as to pinpoint the precise moment where you derail. In the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming, this moment would call for a pattern interrupt. Simply put, creating a pattern interrupt can help you learn new behaviors that ultimately serve your goal. This is a critical piece, because it’s in that moment where you need to now install a new behavior. Then, you need to practice it diligently – over and over again – until it becomes a new habit. For example, let’s say you are committed to going to the gym in the morning. However, you have a tendency to push the snooze button a few too many times and eventually talk yourself out of exercising. At this point, your goal to exercise at the gym has derailed and therefore requires a pattern interrupt. What can you do in that moment that is different from what you have always done in the past? Perhaps you create a mantra such as, “Consistency is key!” Therefore, the next time you catch yourself pushing the snooze button and start talking yourself out of going to the gym, practice repeating the mantra. Mental health professionals generally agree that it takes 3-5 weeks to create a new habit. It will take consistency and repetition of the mantra over this period of time for you to create the new pattern and learn to do things differently in the morning.
The following are practical tips to help you overcome unhealthy eating patterns:
Make small, incremental changes
As previously stated, behavioral patterns developed over a period of time are, by definition, resistant to change. Therefore, be patient with yourself and focus on making incremental changes. For example, you may want to begin by paying attention to decreasing the portion size of your meals, eating with family members and not alone, or paying attention to your physical signs of hunger.
Create a specific plan
The more concrete and organized you are in designing a path toward weight loss, the more likely you are to be successful. For example, what specific changes do you plan to implement? Write these down and keep yourself accountable. For example, you may want to start by eliminating high calorie foods, empty calorie snacks, high sugar content drinks, and high fat content treats from your kitchen. The next step may be to replace these items with protein bars, fruits, vegetables, and high fiber and low-fat food options. You may then want to organize your meals and snacks using these new options. Perhaps you may also want to create a plan for working out that accounts for both deconditioning and pattern interrupts.
Tackle a new mini-goal every 2 weeks
If your goal is to eat more vegetables, tell yourself that you’ll try one new veggie each week until you find some you really enjoy. If another one of your goals is to start working out at the gym, break that goal down into mini-goals. For example, perhaps for the first two weeks you simply drive yourself to the gym and sit in your car for a few minutes. The next two weeks may involve going inside for 10 minutes and getting a lay for the land, etc.
Practice stress management
Focus on dealing with stress through exercise, relaxation, and/or meditation. I find that deep breathing exercises and either meditation or yoga are particularly helpful.
Practice mindful eating
Refer to my other articles on this subject. Simply learning to be more present and “in the moment” will go a long way in helping you create more healthy eating patterns. For example, you will begin by eliminating all distractions while eating and becoming more attuned to the actual process of eating.
Pause before taking a bite, and chew slowly and “intentionally.” This will help bring your focus back to the task at hand (eating) and keep you from mindlessly scarfing down more than your body really wants or needs.
The best way to know what is in your food is to make it yourself. Pay attention to labels while at the grocery store. You will also have greater control over portion sizes. Play around with spices to create flavorful dishes with less sugar and salt.
Develop a routine
Eat meals and snacks around the same time every day. Designate Sunday as a time when you prepare a menu of healthy meals and snacks for the week.
Eat vegetables first
Start with salad or veggies when you sit down for lunch or dinner. Take the time to slowly chew your vegetables in an effort to eat more mindfully. If you practice eating the healthiest foods slowly, you will fill up on the most nutritious options first.