With the amount of information available these days, I think I'm pretty safe in saying that the majority of us know what a healthy eating plan looks like. Here are some of the generally accepted guidelines, just in case:
- Eat the right number of calories for a healthy body weight
- Eat carbs, protein and fat to ensure you get nutrients from all food groups needed to support health
- Eat foods low in simple sugars
- Eat more vegetables, making 5-a-day your minimum with 3 different colours
- Complex carbohydrates are better than simple, and low GI is even better - but don't let low GI rule your eating habits
- Avoid soft drinks, crisps and other processed snacks & fast foods
- Drink plenty of water
- Limit alcohol and caffeine intake.
In short, we know what we should be doing and on the flip side, we are also aware of what we're doing that's hampering our weight management efforts. While it sounds easy enough, there are complexities to behavioural change that make the switch to eating healthier a challenge.
Most of the things we eat, we do so out of habit. We have our favourite foods and food combinations that are our "go-to's" when we're hungry and when we want to feel good. We also have habitual eating habits where the consumption of a particular food triggers the craving to eat another. For example, always feeling like something sweet after eating something savoury is due to always following something savoury with something sweet. It's a habit formed over time. After a while, consuming savoury foods activates the neural pathway in your brain which unconsciously tells your body it's going to get something sweet next. The body then craves it until that craving is satisfied. And few things feel better than satisfying a craving.
Other examples of habitual forms of consumption include:
- Wine with dinner
- Crisps with lunch
- Bread with lunch or dinner
- Cake, biscuits or doughnut with your tea/coffee
- Cereal & fruit juice for breakfast
- Beer with a meat pie
- Popcorn at the cinema
- Strawberries and cream
For many, it just feels wrong to have one item without the other, even though we know it won't help us reach our goals. (Although we could leave out both the beer and the pie).
To succeed with weight management, we need to look at our eating habits and break those which contain foods that aren't helping us. The brain however, loves repetition and therefore loves a habit, making them hard to break. It's very easy to form a habit, but trying to break the neural pathways formed takes conscious effort, focus, practice and time.
Here are a few simple tips on how you can create healthy eating habits:
Make it a Lifestyle Choice
First of all, consider a healthy eating plan as a lifestyle change, not a quick fix. Research has shown that heavily restrictive diets may work in the short term, but they can have negative effects over the long-term. This is especially the case if you go through periods of dieting and then periods of not i.e.yoyo dieting.
Change One Thing at a Time
If you try to change too many things at once, you're setting yourself up for failure. Your body will be craving so many different things, you might not cope. To get started, choose one thing that you know is bad for you that you believe you can do without. It's a balancing act between desire to change and belief you can.
Replace the Bad Habit with a Good One
Cravings can be fierce. If your body desires something, it can be quite distracting until it's satisfied. When they happen, rather than going for the bad option, choose a healthier option instead. Rather than having something sweet that's full of sugar after eating savoury, have something healthy but still sweet, like a small piece of fruit. It's about slightly changing the action to trick the brain into thinking it's been satisfied.
A study conducted by Phillipa Lally published in the European Journal of Social Psychologystated on average, it takes 66 days to form a habit when a behaviour is repeated daily. It can however, take up to 8 months for this to happen. My next tip on creating a healthy eating habit is therefore, be patient. It will take time and persistence. Once the new behaviour becomes a habit, it won't feel like you are doing something out of the ordinary, it just becomes normal.
Set Your Timeline
66 days to create a new habit - your timeline is set. Practicing your new habit daily will not only create your new habit faster, but you'll see the benefits of that change every day.
Get Someone Else Involved
This has a twofold effect: first of all, having someone to make these changes with helps give you the support you'll both need. You can talk to each other about your progress and give each other the strength to stick to the plan when motivation is waning.
Secondly, by telling someone you have set yourself the goal you will feel a greater sense of commitment and obligation to stick to the plan as someone else knows what you're striving for.
Having been a chef I love food! I love cooking great dishes and then eating them. But I am very aware that there are some foods that feel almost like they're addictive. I have gone through periods of time where some not-so-healthy foods were always on the menu e.g. I went through a period where I baked Bill Granger's Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies and would be eating them after most meals. Delicious, but not good for the waist line. I started to pack on the pounds and had to then go about breaking the bad habit I'd formed. It had to be a conscious decision that was put into action. These tips helped me and will hopefully help you when you find yourself indulging a little too often in something you know you shouldn't.