When we talk about habit change in terms of food and eating, we’re talking about a lifetime of behaviours developed and shaped by our environment, experiences, and emotional response. Habits are a product of us and we are a product of our habits.
Our choices to live where we live, drive a specific route home, shop at certain places, and buy specific foods are all driven by the emotional responses we’ve developed through our life experiences. I’m going to come right out and say something that may really upset some people: this is the key reason why diet or eating systems don’t work on principle — no two people are the same.
We all have different experiences in life that have led us to where we are today. Now, there may be some who have exceptional resolve and can stick to a program found in a book over the course of years, but how are they maintaining that routine? If it’s an obsession or a tool they’re using to manage a form of damage, then the diet plan has now become the disordered behaviour.
But the difference between intuitively eating well and using a published eating system is the ability to think for yourself and listen to your body with self-aware accountability. Following a book may be helpful to some, but the empowerment that comes with thinking for yourself is lifelong — and that’s what sustainable habit change does.
It can be hard to change our dietary routine for the better and actually make it stick, but most people who have gone through something bad know exactly how emotions take over: we feel like binging, or we feel the need to control every last calorie that goes into our bodies. This emotional response triggers disordered eating patterns, and if the emotional trigger isn’t dealt with, a person can end up with a serious eating disorder.
Laying the groundwork for sustainable habit change starts by making small incremental goals for yourself. Let’s use an example: One client had a problem with eating junk food in massive quantities — 5,000 to 6,000 calories in one sitting. Instead of focusing on that “mountain” of a problem, I introduced a slight change in his routine: water
We developed a new habit of drinking water before bed and in the morning, and very soon his junk food habit had shrunk by 75 per cent without so much as one craving. This is a sustainable change because even if he goes back to his old ways, which he did on a few occasions, the sickness that followed immediately reminded him of the new habit. He can now enjoy a dessert bowl of ice cream and not feel the need to eat the whole carton.
So what was his trigger? That’s confidential, but I can say the best way to deal with the trigger involves a lot of talking, identifying emotions, and retraining the pattern. He has seen tremendous improvement, but he’s still working with me. This type of lifelong behaviour isn’t changed overnight. It takes time, diligence, and accountability.
If you’re having problems with making permanent changes in your diet, try not to blame yourself. Start with a small positive change in your eating routine, and see how the rest of your daily pattern is affected.
Caitlyn Harbottle is a Peace Region nutrition coach.