How we form new, healthy habits

A lot of what’s stopping you losing weight and keeping it off could be your unhelpful eating habits. Nibbling at food whilst you’re cooking, eating to stave off boredom, having a slice of cake with coffee at work because everyone else is, grazing through a family sized pack of crisps in front of the TV… the list goes on.

So what do you do to lose the weight?
You go on a diet.
Overnight, you change your eating patterns and drop all the unhelpful habits. You start counting (calories/ points/ syns) or weighing your food. You write a new shopping list and perhaps clear out your kitchen cupboards. Gone are the tempting treats; in their place are the superfoods. A new dawn, with fresh enthusiasm!

This time may be the time that your new efforts pay off and once the weight is lost, your new way of eating becomes the norm. But what if it isn’t? What if you can’t keep it up? You’re likely to feel disappointed and despondent, maybe angry with yourself or the diet. And frustrated that whatever effort it took to start the diet hasn’t paid off in the long-term. What many people do in this situation is to forget weight loss and coast for a while and then choose a new diet, and go through the process again. And again.

Take a step back and ask yourself what’s going wrong
In a nutshell, what is going wrong is that you’re trying to change the eating habits of a lifetime overnight, which in psychological terms is just about as hard as you can get. We’re not built to change radically overnight; we’ve evolved to establish patterns of doing things that then stick. These habits develop over time, when we repeat the same action over and over again. Our brains learn to allocate these repeated sequences to automatic control, freeing up precious mental workspace (Working Memory) for new tasks.

How habits are formed
There’s an interesting study from University College London* which looked at real-life attempts to form new habits. Ninety-six volunteers chose a single eating, drinking or activity behaviour that they wanted to change and were asked to carry it out each day in the same context (eg after breakfast) for 12 weeks. The participants recorded whether they had actually performed the action and completed a short set of questions about at the end of each day over the 12-week study, about how automatic the action felt.

Repeating a behaviour in a consistent situation/setting increases automaticity
The researchers found that on average, the number of days taken for the new healthy behaviour to feel automatic (“automaticity”) was 66, but there was very wide variation (from 18 to 254 days). Shown as a graph, the pattern of how the automaticity tended to develop was like this (“asymptote” relates to the mathematical shape of the curve):

As you can see, automaticity increased steadily in the first days and weeks and gradually levelled off, so that it reached a point where it was highly automatic and no longer increasing in “strength”. Remember that this was just focusing on making one permanent habit change.

What is important for any of us trying to change an established habit to see, is that the effort put in over the initial days and weeks eventually pays off as it becomes habitual. Also, it’s important to remember that the average of 66 days to change a habit is very variable, partly dependent on the complexity of the habit you’re trying to change. So if you’re finding one specific habit change difficult, it’s good to stick at it knowing that this may just be a more complex thing for you to shift.

As the study authors emphasise, they provided no external rewards for the people taking part, which shows that you don’t need external rewards to help you change a habit. Of course, because the behaviours were chosen by the participants themselves, they are likely to have been intrinsically rewarding.

For those of us tasked with helping people achieve habit change, continued support needs to be available for long enough for it to become automatic.

What if you miss a day?
The authors looked at what happened where someone missed an opportunity to do the healthy behaviour on a particular day. They found no overall effect of missing a day, although a different study** found that missing a week’s worth of opportunities did hinder habit acquisition. So whilst some occasional missed opportunities will not derail your new habit, a whole week of doing so probably will. This is important in real-life practice when thinking about letting your hair down eating-wise on your holidays. If you’re working on changing an eating habit, factor in what you’ll do on holiday – either wait to work on this habit until you get home, or carry on establishing the new habit whilst you’re away. But if it’s your birthday and you forget your intended habit that day, just focus back on it the next day and there’ll be no harm done.

Once it’s automatic, it will be your new habit and won’t need effort to stick to
Creating new habits does require focus and effort during the time you’re increasing the automaticity. This is why with Appetite Retraining over and again I emphasise the value of focusing on changing your eating habits one at a time. It does take effort to replace the old unhelpful eating (or exercise) habit with the new healthy one. But the beauty of this approach is that each behaviour, once it achieves automaticity, is a habit. Which means it’s governed by the subconscious part of your brain – your autopilot. And there is then no diet to come off – your new weight will be your stable weight! And it is up to you how many unhelpful eating habits you want to change, and in what order. If you want quick results you might want to go for a habit that’s leading you to hold on to quite a bit of extra weight, such as reducing the size of your evening meal by a quarter every day. But if you’d prefer to dip your toe in the habit-change water to get the feel of it, try something smaller.

What particular habit do you want to focus on changing?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on changing one unhelpful eating habit at a time, and which particular habit you’re thinking of focusing on.

*Lally, P, van Jaarsveld,C, Potts, H and Wardle, J (2010) How habits are formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998-1009

**Armitage, C (2005) Can the theory of planned behaviour predict the maintenance of physical activity? Health Psychology, 24: 235-45

My book, “How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating all your favourite foods” is available from independent bookshops, all major UK booksellers and from Amazon 

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