Are you trying to improve your eating this new year wonder how you’ll make it stick past February? Instead of putting the blinders on and telling yourself to just do it, let’s talk about how to build lasting healthy eating habits instead of using brute force (and a side of guilt) to get it done this year.
Every January you might feel a pressure to make a New Year’s Resolution. If you’re like most people, you’re likely looking to exercise more, save money or change your eating.
And if you’re like most people who want to start eating healthy, you’re going to jump right in and hit the ground running. Skip breakfast, salad for lunch, cut out carbs and sugar, stop snacking (especially in the evening) and eat smaller portions might be your go-to actions.
You might even join a healthy eating challenge to lose some weight or start a new diet with your coworkers.
For some people, these changes work well, even if they don’t last.
For others? Well they feel like they can’t keep up with it after a month or two. It’s too hard. It’s expensive. The ‘allowed’ foods get boring. A birthday comes around. Life gets busy. It’s easy to wonder if all this hard work is even making a difference.
If this sounds like you and now you’re wondering why you can’t stick to it, you’re not alone!
In my program, Nourish your Health, I walk with clients, step-by-step, through it all as they not only make changes to their eating but also understand how to work with their eating instead of against it. At the core of it all, we learn how to create new habits that mesh with real life and how to keep rolling when life would’ve otherwise gotten in the way.
What is a habit?
The definition of a habit is: an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.
A habit is so much more than making a change in your life!
It’s a fundamental shift in your thinking and your actions.
People tell me all the time how they just don’t have the motivation or willpower to keep going with their good intentions to eat differently. They just can’t stay consistent with their changes.
Habits, though, are about patterns and have nothing to do with motivation or willpower. And from the definition above, you can see that consistency is built right in!
Why think about building habits?
Anyone can talk themselves into cooking instead of using the drive thru or going for a walk after supper at least a few times.
But without shifting the way you see your situation, the problem, the solution and your actions though, it’s hard to stick with it for long.
Let’s think about wanting to eat better for your health. Let’s imagine you talked to your doctor and they said you have high cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugars and you need to change your eating and lose some weight.
What’s your first step? Well maybe your doctor told you to start a keto diet. Or maybe you go home and Google how to eat to lose weight. Or possibly your friend or one of your kids eats vegetarian so they help you change your eating.
Next you find some new recipes to go along with the diet you decide to follow, make a grocery list and get to work.
Fast forward a few months … your family doesn’t like those new recipes, the relaxed schedule you had during the winter holidays has changed into busy season at work, the healthy food you’ve been buying goes bad in the fridge before you get to it, you’re tired of saying ‘no thanks’ when others go out to eat or there’s a potluck and you feel really frustrated when you’ve eaten good during the day only to find yourself snacking in front of the tv after supper.
The missing ingredient to this? Habits.
Habits are so powerful. Since they’re actions and behaviours that are ingrained in us, they’re easily overlooked. For example, when was the last time you thought about putting on your seatbelt before driving somewhere? What’s the first app you open when you pick up your phone? How often do you have to think about closing the door behind you when you get home?
You can have that same ease or feeling of autopilot when it comes to your eating as well. No matter which way of eating you choose to use for your health.
Instead of jumping in and willpower-ing yourself to make different choices, focusing your energy on building solid habits. This is how you can make your new way of eating a way of life rather than another chore or something you feel guilty about when it doesn’t work out.
The habit formation loop
We aren’t usually fully conscious of our behaviours or the processes happening unless we make an effort to learn them.
Habits are no different.
As James Clear says in his book, Atomic Habits, there is a cycle of 4 steps we go through as we form habits: Cue, Craving, Response and Reward.
Basically, we learn cues or hints in our life that mean we can get a reward if we follow them. A craving is what motivates us to act so we can feel a certain way or achieve something. But, we will only go through with the response (an action) if we are willing to put in the amount of effort needed. Then we’re rewarded. When we feel satisfied with the reward we use information from the process to decide if/what to do in the future in order to continue getting what we need and want.
As the definition from earlier showed us though, this process needs to be repeated and it needs to happen frequently in order for a habit to be set (aka consistency).
5 steps to building a lasting healthy eating habits
1. Choose ONE new habit
Maybe you feel like you have to make up for lost time when it comes to your health so you want to jump right in with all the changes at once.
But just hang on a second. How has this approach worked for you in the past?
If you’re like most of the people I’ve worked with, not so great. Sure, it might have been great in the beginning … until it got to be too much.
So let’s just try something a little differently here. For right now, what is ONE thing you want to work on? Make sure you have a clear intention, end-point or picture in your mind.
For example, maybe it’s that you want to lose 30lbs of extra weight around your middle that has crept up over the years and may now be playing a part in your higher blood sugar labs.
Using what we’ve talked about already, let’s shift this thought toward the idea of being someone who builds their meals in a way that balances blood sugars, satisfies hunger and is enjoyable to eat … instead of setting a goal to reach a specific number on the scale (somehow).
2. Find the starting-off point with the smallest commitment
Ok, we’ve set out the goal to build balanced meals in order to lose extra weight … now what? Although it sounds simple to say, there are a bunch of moving parts to this.
Let’s boil it down to the smallest possible first step.
In order to be someone who builds balanced meals, what needs to happen for you?
Keep asking yourself what it will take for each step along the way until you get down to 1 small thing. We’re talking something really small. Like so small it feels insignificant.
Using our example this could look like:
What would it take to become someone who builds balanced meals? Meal-planning on a weekly basis.
What would it take to meal-plan on a weekly basis? Dedicate time for this.
What would it take to dedicate time for this? Block off 30 mins in my calendar before going grocery shopping for the week.
What would it take to block of 30 mins a week before grocery shopping? Use my lunch hour on Friday to choose 5 main meals for the week ahead.
What would it take to choose 5 main meals? A list of recipes we all enjoy that I can choose from and rotate through.
What would it take to have a list of meals to rotate through? Create a list on my phone where I can collect our favorite meals.
So your first step could be to use the first Friday lunch hour to set up a list in your phone and brain dump all your family’s favorite meals. The next Friday you could use that time to add to the list, either from your memory or to search for some new recipes to try.
Continue doing this weekly until you’re bored of it and feel ready to progress to the next step. Maybe you need a calendar or spreadsheet to schedule your 5 meals – use your dedicated time to set that up. Or you might want to start by planning 1 or 2 meals, instead of 5, for the upcoming week so you don’t end up over-buying groceries. Once 1-2 meals a week is working, plan in a 3rd and so on.
Notice that although you started with a weight loss goal in this example, you’re now actually focusing on actions you can take rather than the number on the scale. You’re focusing on becoming a person who eats balanced meals (and saves time, headache and money by meal-planning) rather than sitting with constant thoughts about what to eat less of and what you can’t have.
3. Design your environment to make your new habit the easy choice
You have a goal and a very small, guaranteed-success-sized action to work on first.
Now it’s time to make your space work for you instead of against you.
How have remembered stuff in the past? What cues do you use in your space? Try that here. Maybe you use notes, stickies or reminders on your phone.
Without a cue to prompt you to do your new habit at lunch on Friday, you’ll probably get busy doing what you’ve always done at lunch on Fridays.
You also want to be sure you’re prepared! If your list is going into your phone, do you have your phone with you? Is it charged up? Do you need an internet connection in order to look at your Pinned recipes or favorite website?
Any bump in the road at this point can throw you off before you even get started. So make sure your space encourages you to start your new habit.
4. Visualize your progress and acknowledge whenever you show up
We definitely have a plan in the making here and it’s something that already feels do-able.
Even if it feels too small, or not enough, it’s important that you acknowledge the fact that you showed up. That you set out to do a thing, and that’s just what you did.
When you’re first making a new habit, it’s not going to be about how much or how big. It’s about showing up.
So let’s find a way that you can see your showing-up-ness. Something visual and tangible.
It could be a paper with checkmarks or stamps or stickers where you add another one each time you complete your habit. Or a jar with marbles or paperclips. Or a calendar. Whatever you have available and in a space you’ll see it.
At first it’s not going to feel like a lot. But once you see the checks or paperclips piling up, you will see proof that you’ve made this important in your life and you’ve been consistent about showing up.
And if you’ve ever tried to change your eating in the past, you certainly know how important the art of showing up and staying consistent feels.
On top of the satisfaction you might feel from seeing your progress, you might also want to use small rewards as acknowledgement. Especially as you’re building your new habit and before you feel like you’ve ‘gotten there’, give yourself small rewards to keep up your motivation.
This could be an extra 5 minutes in the shower, 15 minutes where you look at pictures on your phone or taking a break in your day to listen to a favorite song. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive. For so many of my clients it’s about giving time! We’re always so busy and rushed feeling, it’s a real treat to take time out and recharge in some way.
5. Find a community with like-minded people
At this point you have a goal, a starting off point, a space that makes your habit easy to do and a way to see your progress.
But even with all that planned out, having a place for support alongside others on the same journey can make a huge difference! Imagine trying to meal plan using balanced meals when all you follow online are weight loss support groups and people focused on cutting calories. It’s probably not the best fit.
Whether this means unfollowing those who are not in line with your current goals or joining groups that walk the talk, it’s up to you. But surrounding yourself with input from like-minded people will really help you as you work toward becoming the person with the habits you want.
Are you changing your eating so you can lower your cholesterol, blood pressure or blood sugars?
Download my free getting started guide where I walk you through the steps to take and the changes you should think about for your eating.
You’ll also get email support from me along the way as you take action in each phase (so you actually make changes and this guide doesn’t get lost in the depths of your computer’s downloads folder!).
How can I be sure my healthy eating habits will stick for the long-term?
The most important part in developing long-lasting habits is that first thing we talked about: shifting and reframing this change. When you focus your energy on being the kind of person who eats well and has energy to enjoy life, then you no longer have to force yourself to follow random food rules or chase a number on the scale.
It becomes part of you and how you see yourself.
Healthy eating habits look different for each and every person. There’s no one right way of eating for everyone, or for every day in your life. When you trust the process and find ways to make changes that are right for you, you won’t have to work so hard.
Focus on moving forward always – gradual gains can mean long-term rewards. And as hard as it might feel, trust that you’re building something here.
By using the 5 steps from above, you can build your new habit step-by-step in a way you might not have approached it before. Before long, you’ll realize that the thing that felt so hard to change is now just what you do.
It’s not going to happen overnight, just as your current habits didn’t happen overnight either.
And it’s not always going to feel easy.
But you can do this!
And if you feel like you need some extra guidance about what focused adjustments to make with your eating so that you can lower your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugars or worries about the future of your health, the Nourish your Health program may be a good fit for you. I’ve gathered all the teachings, resources and tools you need inside this program, including meal planning and building a balanced plate (using all the foods you know and love). If you’re not already a member, click here to learn more about it.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on helping people take back control of their health & weight … before it feels like their health controls their life. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.