You’ve filled your kitchen with healthy foods and planned careful meals to lose weight. But your diet still isn’t working. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it may be more than your pantry that needs an overhaul. You may also need to learn how to break bad eating habits to get real results.
Not sure where to begin? The first step is to identify the behaviors that are doing the most damage. Scan this list of everyday eating habits that add empty calories, unwanted fat, or added sugar to your diet. See which unhealthy habits look familiar. It’s possible that you’re not even aware that these behaviors have an impact on your waistline.
If you can identify and target critical practices, it becomes easier to seek a solution and see real results on the scale. Once you identify an action to eliminate, you’ll want to swap it out for better behavior. In most cases, the smartest way to change a bad eating habit is to replace it with a healthier practice that is easy and feels good. That way, you’ll want to choose the new habit on a regular basis.
Use the suggestions listed beneath each bad habit as a starting point for change. But modify the solutions to fit your lifestyle. You can even get creative and develop a personalized solution that makes more sense for you.
1. You Call Your Habits “Bad”
The first habit you may want to address is the language you use to describe your eating routines. Just eliminating the word “bad” can be a small step in the right direction.
Elisabetta Politi, MPH, RD, LDN, CDE, is the Nutrition Director at Duke Diet and Fitness Center, a world-renowned weight loss program affiliated with the Duke University Medical Center. She says that attaching judgment to behaviors can impede weight loss.
“Shame is not helpful,” she says, adding that diet professionals are trained to address eating behaviors without judgment.
“There is no right way to eat, and I am not a guru of bad habits. I simply help clients to eat in a way that is healthy and feels good. That way my clients are more likely to sustain their program.”
She goes on to say that whether you are working with a professional or changing unhealthy habits on your own, a slow and gentle approach is best. Target one habit at a time and set a goal to find a simple replacement behavior to boost healthy eating and wellness.
2. You Keep a Snack-Happy Kitchen
Once you’ve set aside judgment, it’s time to bolster your healthy eating routine by creating an environment for success. The best place to start is in the kitchen.
Do you keep high-calorie foods on your kitchen counter? Do your store empty calorie snack foods in eye-level cabinets? Are leftovers, sugary drinks, or fatty sweet treats taking over the center shelves of the refrigerator? These food storage habits may encourage unhealthy, mindless eating, according to studies performed at Cornell University.
Healthy habit swap: Store empty calorie foods in places where you are less likely to see them often. Put chips and snacks in your lowest cabinets or way up high, so you have to work a little bit to get them. Clear your kitchen counters and replace the cookie jar with a fruit bowl. And do a complete refrigerator overhaul so that when you open the door to browse, the most nutritious foods are front and center.
3. You Ignore Food Prep Calories
If you love to cook, you’re one step ahead of the pack when it comes to healthy eating or weight loss. When you plan and cook healthy meals at home, it becomes easier to focus on nutritious ingredients and portion control.
But have you ever wondered how many calories you add to your daily diet when you lick the spoon from the peanut butter jar, grab an extra dollop or two of cookie dough, or taste your homemade pesto recipe again…and again…and again? It can add up to hundreds of calories per day that aren’t accounted for in your smart calorie-counting. As a result, you might get frustrated and may even give up on a healthy diet or weight loss plan.
Healthy habit swap: Keep a jar of water on your counter when you’re cooking. After you use a spatula, spoon, or cooking utensil put it into the water instead of your mouth. You’ll keep the utensil clean and the calories off your hips. Similarly, keep a sink full of suds ready to submerge bowls, pots, and pans that tempt you. You can also suck on a mint or chew sugar-free gum to discourage over-tasting during food prep.
4. You Eat With Distractions
The best way to eat more than you need (and add unwanted pounds to your waistline) is to practice distracted eating. If you usually eat in front of a television or laptop, you are probably a distracted eater. Even eating with books or magazines can take the focus away from your meal.
Healthy habit swap: If you increase enjoyment of your meal, you are more likely to eat slowly, enjoy your food, and recognize signs of hunger and fullness so that you eat the right amount of food. To do so, create a satisfying experience at mealtime.
Set your table, plate your food (instead of eating out of a box or plastic container), and turn off the television when you dine. Put magazines and newspapers aside and focus on the sensory experience of eating. This practice, called “mindful eating,” is the key to maintaining a healthy weight, according to many experts.
5. You Sneak Food
According to Politi, sneaking food is an unhealthy habit that many of her clients would like to change. She explains that many times we practice good eating habits when others are around. For example, you might eat well during the day when your spouse is nearby. But when your husband or wife goes to bed, you find yourself nibbling on foods that you typically would avoid. In fact, one study found a link between eating alone and your risk for metabolic syndrome.
Healthy habit swap: You may want to investigate why you feel the need to break away from healthy habits when you are alone. Politi says that some of her clients feel “free to do what they want” when no one is looking. If that sounds familiar, your food plan may be too restrictive, and you may need to make some adjustments.
You can also be sure that healthy foods are available to snack on if you are genuinely hunger. Plan ahead and make sure that healthy snacks like fresh fruit, pre-cut veggies, whole grain crackers, or nuts are ready to go when you feel the urge to graze.
6. You Fall for Health Halo Foods
Advertising claims on the front of food packages can make foods seem more healthy than they are. For example, a box of cookies might advertise that they are made from all-natural, non-GMO, organic ingredients—but they are still cookies. And those cookies may be very high in unhealthy fat, added sugar, and empty calories.
Some research has shown that we tend to overeat foods that we perceive to be healthy.
Healthy habit swap: Ignore claims on the front of packaged foods. Instead, turn the package over and scan the Nutrition Facts label to get data that is regulated by the federal government. You can also examine the ingredients list to make sure the food contains nutritious ingredients, little added sugar, and no trans fat.
7. You Eat Past the Point of Fullness
Our “clean plate” culture teaches us that it is polite to finish all of the food on our plates—even if we are already full. But this practice of good manners is a bad eating habit that may cause us to overeat. And to make matters worse, if you are a fast eater or a distracted eater, you may also find that you eat past the point of fullness.
Healthy habit swap: The best way to avoid overeating is to slow down your eating practice so that you can feel the body sensations as you get full. Many mindful eaters place their fork down between each bite of food. It also helps to cut your food into smaller pieces and to drink water between every two to three bites.
Each of these practices gives you more time to recognize the sensation of a full belly so that you stop eating when you’ve had enough.
8. You Underestimate Food Share Calories
If you are a mom who cooks for her kids, it’s likely that you nibble on your kid’s meals from time to time. As a busy parent, this may seem like the most convenient way to feed yourself. But if you make this a regular practice it can become an unhealthy habit. Maintaining a healthy weight can be difficult if you are not mindful of the amount or the quality of food that you consume.
Healthy habit swap: It’s always best to eat from your own plate. If you cook for your kids, make a little extra for yourself, then “volumize” to create a healthy adult portion.
For example, if you make macaroni and cheese for your little one, plate your child’s food first, then create a separate plate for yourself. Add a heap of broccoli, spinach, peas, or another green vegetable to turn a small serving into a satisfying adult portion that adds nutrition without adding fat or excess calories.
9. You Eat Straight From the Box
How many times have you grabbed a box of cereal and eaten it dry right from the box? When you consume snack crackers or chips, do you scan the serving size then place a single serving in a bowl or on a plate? Or do you plunge your hand into the bag and begin nibbling?
Eating straight from the box or the bag is convenient and it can certainly cut down on your dirty dish count, but this bad habit does nothing good for your waistline. In fact, it can add hundreds of excess calories to your daily total.
Healthy habit swap: Keep a one-cup-sized scoop inside your cereal boxes so that you know how much cereal to consume if you want to eat a single serving. Then scoop it into a bowl before eating—even if you plan to eat it dry.
If you are indulging in chips or snack crackers, place about 15 to 20 chips on a small plate then put the box or bag away before you sit down to enjoy your snack.
10. You Order In Too Often
If you live in a city where food delivery is easy, then you might take advantage of the service on busy nights when you don’t have time to cook. But if you order in too often, it can become a bad habit.
It’s easy to order too much food and overeat as a result. In addition, many of the foods that are available for delivery (think pizza, subs, fast food) are oversized and full of fat and calories.
Healthy habit swap: Your wallet and your waistline will thank you if you can plan ahead and have nutritious meals ready to go when you are too busy to cook. Either prep meals in advance or purchase a few portion-controlled meals at the grocery store and stash them in your freezer. Not all frozen meals are healthy, but you can at least scan the Nutrition Facts label before you buy to make the smartest decision.
If you do order in, order an appetizer as your main entree or split your meal in two before eating. Enjoy the second half for lunch the next day.
11. You Drink Your Calories
A flavored latte or frothy cappuccino can be a delicious way to start your day. Unfortunately, a coffee habit may boost your sugar and fat intake more than you realize.
Many of the drinks at Starbucks and other coffee shops provide an entire meal’s worth of calories, fat, and sugar. If you add a super-sized soda at lunchtime and a glass of wine or two at dinner, you may be consuming more calories from drinks than you do from healthy and nutritious food.
Healthy habit swap: Check the nutrition facts for coffee drinks before you order. There are plenty of low-calorie coffee choices; you just have to know what to order and what to avoid.
A small skim cappuccino, for example, provides a boost of protein and usually provides under 100 calories. Then try to swap your soda for water at lunchtime. If you currently drink a large soda every day, you may be able to cut enough calories to lose a pound or more just by making this smart swap.
And if you indulge in a daily glass of vino, keep portion control in mind. A single glass of wine is just 5 ounces.
How Long to Break a Bad Eating Habit?
Researchers have been studying behavior change for years. According to one study, the average length of time it takes to change a habit is about 66 days, although depending on the individual it may take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days.
Politi says that the timing of habit change is a complex and controversial topic. “We used to believe that it would be possible to change a habit in 21 to 28 days, but new research into brain neuroplasticity indicates that it probably takes much longer.” For this reason, she says that it is essential to be patient and to bolster your resources.
According to Politi, the key factors that help you successfully break a bad habit include:
- Support. Politi suggests talking to the people around you to ask for assistance. Perhaps your spouse is willing to replace his/her nightly cookie treat with an evening snack of fruit to support your efforts. Or maybe he or she is ready to keep ice cream out of the house and instead enjoy a monthly visit to the local ice cream shop.
- Accountability. If you set a goal to change a “bad” habit, make the habit measurable and time-bound. Check in with an accountability buddy and assess your progress. Make adjustments as needed and don’t forget to celebrate all of your small steps toward improvement.
- Motivation. Trying to stay motivated is always a challenge. “It’s hard to stick to your new healthy habits during times of stress,” says Politi, “it can be easy to lose focus.” But there are a few things you can do to maintain it. First, she says, remember that you can always get back on track even if you lose focus for a while. And second, she says to continually ask yourself “where will I be in five years without this habit change?” The answer may inspire you to embrace your new healthy habits with renewed enthusiasm.
A Word From Tips For Healthy Living
We all have behaviors we’d like to change. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that your habits are bad or that you are bad because you practice them. Each of us is a work in progress.
As you evaluate your daily health habits, be kind to yourself. And remember that taking consistent small steps to adopt healthy habits is the best path to a peaceful and robust life of wellness.
This article is featured in our 30 Day Can Prevent Checklist with the American Institute for Cancer Research. Get your own free copy to learn more ways to eat smarter, get more active, and prevent cancer.