Food gives our bodies the energy we need to function. Food is also a part of traditions and culture. This can mean that eating has an emotional component as well. For many people, changing eating habits is very hard.
You may have had certain eating habits for so long that you do not realize they are unhealthy. Or, your habits have become part of your daily life, so you do not think much about them.
Keep a Journal
A food journal is a good tool to help you learn about your eating habits. Keep a food journal for 1 week.
- Write down what you eat, how much, and what times of the day you are eating.
- Include notes about 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. 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 patterns. Decide which habits you want to change.
Remember, small steps toward change lead to more success in making long-term changes. Try not to overwhelm yourself with too many goals. It is a good idea to limit your focus to no more than 2 to 3 goals at one time.
Also, take a look at the healthy habits you have and be proud of yourself about them. Try not to judge your behaviors too harshly. It is easy to focus only on your poor habits. This can make you feel stressed and give up trying to change.
Taking on new, healthier habits may mean that you:
- Drink skim or low-fat (1%) milk instead of 2% or whole milk.
- Drink more water throughout the day.
- Eat fruit for dessert instead of cookies (or skip dessert all together most days).
- Schedule times to eat your meals and snacks.
- Plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks to increase your chance of success.
- Keep healthy snacks at work. Pack healthy lunches that you make at home.
- Pay attention to your feelings of hunger. Learn the difference between physical hunger and habitual eating.
Think about what triggers or prompts may be causing some of your eating habits.
- Is there something around you that makes you eat when you are not hungry or choose unhealthy snacks often?
- Does the way you feel make you want to eat?
Look at your journal and circle any regular or repetitive triggers. Some of these might be:
- You see your favorite snack in the pantry or vending machine
- When you watch television
- You feel stressed by something at work or in another area of your life
- You have no plan for dinner after a long day
- You go to work events where food is served
- You stop at fast-food restaurants for breakfast and choose high fat, high calorie foods
- You need a pick-me-up toward the end of your workday
Start by focusing on one or two triggers that occur most often during your week. Think about what you can do to avoid those triggers, such as:
- DO NOT walk 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. If someone else in your household buys these snacks, devise a plan to keep them out of sight.
- Suggest having fruits and vegetables during workplace meetings, instead of sweets. Or bring healthier selections in for yourself.
- Swap out juice or soda for sparkling water.
Replace Your old Habits with New, Healthy Ones
Find health choices for snacks and plan ahead:
- If you are in the habit of eating candy at the end of the day for energy, try having a cup of herbal tea and a small handful of almonds.
- Eat fruit and yogurt in the mid-afternoon about 3 or 4 hours after lunch.
Control your portion sizes. It is hard to eat only a few chips or other tempting foods when there is a lot in front of you. Take only a small portion and put the rest away. Eat on a plate or in a bowl instead of straight out of a bag.
- Put down your fork between bites.
- Wait until you have swallowed your mouthful of food before taking the next bite.
Eating too quickly leads to overeating when 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.
Eat only when you are hungry:
- Eating when you feel worried, tense, or bored also leads to overeating. Instead, call a friend or go for a walk to help you feel better.
- Give your body and your brain time to relax from the stress of daily life. Take a mental or physical break to help you feel better without turning to food as a reward.
Plan your meals:
- Know what you will eat ahead of time so you can avoid buying unhealthy foods (impulse buying) or eating at fast-food restaurants.
- Plan your dinners at the beginning of the week so you can prepare healthy, well-balanced meals each evening.
- Prepare some dinner components ahead of time (such as chopping vegetables.) This will allow you to put together a healthy meal more quickly at the end of the day.
Get rid of unhealthy foods:
- Replace your candy dish with a bowl of fruit or nuts.
- When you do have unhealthy foods in your house, put them in a place that is hard for you to reach rather than out on the counter.
An old saying goes: "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper."
Breakfast sets the tone for the day. A hearty, healthy breakfast will give your body the energy it needs to get you to lunch. If you are not hungry when you wake up, you could try a glass of milk or a small fruit and dairy-based smoothie.
Plan a good lunch that will satisfy you, and a healthy afternoon snack that will keep you from becoming too hungry before dinner time.
Avoid skipping meals. Missing a regular meal or snack often leads to overeating or making unhealthy choices.
Once you have changed 1 or 2 old unhealthy habits, try changing 1 or 2 more.
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. Try again to replace it with a new habit. One slip does not mean you are a failure. Keep trying!
Thompson M, Noel MB. Nutrition and family medicine. In: Rakel RE, Rakel D, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 37.
Update Date 4/25/2015
Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.