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Eating habits and behaviors

Eating is important. Food gives our bodies the energy we need to function. For many people, changing eating habits is very difficult.

You may have practiced some habits so long, you may not even realize that they are unhealthy; or they simply have become part of your lifestyle, and you do them without much thought.

Keep a Journal

A food journal is a good way to become aware of your eating habits. Keep a food journal for 1 week. Write down what you eat, how much, and what time of day you ate it. Also write down what else you were doing and how you were feeling, such as being hungry, stressed, tired, or bored. For example, maybe you were at work and were bored, and so you got a snack from a vending machine down the hall from your desk.

At the end of the week, review your journal and look at your eating habits. Try to decide which habits you want to change. Remember small steps to change lead to more long-term changes. Try not to overwhelm yourself with too many goals.

Also, congratulate yourself for the healthy habits you do have. Many people focus on their poor habits and then become distressed and overwhelmed. Don’ t judge your behaviors. Setting goals to change them is the best way to make new habits permanent.

A few good habits would be:

  • Drinking skim or low-fat (1%) milk instead of 2% or whole milk
  • Choosing fruit for dessert instead of cookies (or skipping dessert)
  • Scheduling times to eat your meals and snacks
  • Setting up your environment for success by planning and preparing your healthy foods
  • Keeping healthy snacks at work. Bring in lunch that you prepare the night before.
  • Checking in with your hunger and learning to know the difference between physical hunger and habit eating

Now Reflect

Think about what triggers, or prompts, may be causing some of your eating habits. Is there something in your environment, such as a vending machine down the hall, that makes you eat when you are not hungry or choose an unhealthy snack? Does the way you feel make you want to eat?

Look at your journal and circle the common triggers. Some of them might be:

  • Seeing your favorite snack in the pantry or vending machine
  • Watching television
  • Feeling stressed by something at work or by another situation
  • Having no plan for dinner after a long day
  • Going to a staff meeting to which someone brought cupcakes
  • Stopping at a fast-food restaurant for breakfast and choosing high fat, high calorie foods
  • Needing a pick-me-up toward the end of your workday

Start by focusing on the one or two triggers that occurred the most often during your week. Is there something you could do to avoid these triggers?

Some ways to avoid triggers are:

  • Avoid walking past the vending machine to get to your desk, if possible.
  • Decide what you will have for dinner early in the day so that you have a plan after work.
  • Keep unhealthy snacks out of your house or negotiate with the person in your home who is buying these to keep them out of sight.
  • Suggest having fruit and vegetables in place of cupcakes at staff meetings, or bring these things yourself.

Replace Your Old Habits with New, Healthy Ones

For example, you may have decided that snacking on candy toward the end of your workday as a pick-me-up is something you want to change. You could replace this habit with, a cup of herbal tea (mint can be refreshing) and eating a small handful of almonds. Or you could eat fruit and yogurt. Most people do get hungry mid-afternoon, about 3 - 4 hours after lunch. Planting to have a healthy snack ready is a great way to help you make this a permanent habit

Some other ideas for replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones are:

Eat slowly.

  • Eating too quickly leads to overeating. This is because the food you have eaten has not yet reached your stomach and told your brain you are full. You will know you are eating too quickly if you feel stuffed about 20 minutes after you stop eating.
  • Try putting down your fork between bites. Wait until you have swallowed your mouthful of food before taking the next bite.

Eat only when you are hungry.

  • Eating when you are feeling worried, tense, or bored also leads to overeating. Try to do something like calling a friend or going for a walk to help you feel better.
  • Our bodies and our brains need time to relax from the hustle and bustle of today’s life. Taking a mental or physical break may be just what you need. Many of us don’t plan on these breaks. Instead, when we desperately need them, we turn to food to get that feeling of relaxation or reward.

Plan your meals. This reduces the chance you will buy foods you did not plan to buy (impulse buying) or eat at fast-food restaurants. Planning dinners at the beginning of the week helps you prepare healthy, well-balanced meals in the evening.

Control your portion sizes. It is hard to eat only a few chips when the whole bag is in front of you. So put a few chips into a bowl, then put the bag away. Do that with other foods as well.

Get rid of unhealthy foods.

  • Replace the candy dish with a fruit or nut bowl. If you must have tempting, unhealthy foods in your house for other family members, put them out of sight on a high shelf or at the back of the cupboard.
  • Avoid skipping meals. Eat breakfast like a king or queen, lunch like a prince or princess, and dinner like a pauper.
  • Skipping meals often leads to eating too much or grabbing the first thing you see. Breakfast sets the tone for the day. A hearty, healthy breakfast will give your body the energy it needs to get you to lunch.
  • A well-planned lunch will satisfy you, and a healthy afternoon snack will keep you from becoming over-hungry by dinner time.

Once you have changed one or two old unhealthy habits, try changing one or two more.

Practice Helps

It may take a while before you can turn your unhealthy habits into new, healthy ones. Remember, it took you a while to form your habits, and it may take just as long to change them. Do not give up.

If you start an old habit again, think about why you went back to it and replace it again with a new habit. Most importantly, keep trying. One slip does not mean the whole day is ruined, and it does not mean you are a failure. You can do it!

Update Date: 7/1/2011

Updated by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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