Why is changing a habit so dang hard? I have so many bad habits I’ve been trying to change, from hitting the snooze button thirty times before getting out of bed, to throwing my dirty clothes on the ground and not in the hamper, to spending $10 for the tiniest amount of food at Starbucks at a rate my bank account can’t handle. I could write many, many paragraphs on my various bad habits, but I will stop here. The fact is I have tried to change these habits for years, and have been unsuccessful.
It’s the same story for my eating habits: huge portions, chronic snacking, junk food, eating when I’m not even hungry, stress eating, midnight snacking, the list goes on. For years I’ve been told the biological and behavioral changes – and even some “psychological tricks” – I need to make to adopt better eating habits: use smaller plates, chew slowly, count you calories, eat whole foods, drink more water, don’t eat after 7pm, etc. etc.
Yet armed with all this knowledge, the results have been lacking. Why?
Studies show that weight management skills based in biological and behavioral practices help a small portion of people, but even many of these people will end up back at their original weight eventually. So what gives?
It’s difficult to understand what our bad habits are, what triggers them, and what reinforces them. But even if we can do all that, it’s not enough to say, “ok, I’m going to eliminate this bad habit,” or “I’m going to remove these triggers.”
I have accepted the idea that the habits and triggers are inevitable, yet the way I think about and perceive them can change. So how do I think about my eating habits and how is that getting in the way of my goals?
Here are 5 thoughts preventing me from healthy eating habits:
- I eat because I am tired and stressed
- I am addicted to sweets
- When I see sweets I can’t resist
- When I eat I have no control
- It’s not polite to refuse food offered by others
Do you have thoughts like these? If you do, let’s talk about it.
First, there’s the thought “I eat because I am tired and stressed.” I have this thought ALL THE TIME. In fact I think I might even mention this is every post I write. But let’s see if there are any cognitive distortions in this. Thinking about it, I would say this is a bit of overgeneralization. This means I tend to think to myself that I “always” eat when I’m hungry and I “always” eat when I’m stressed.
The truth is, I don’t always eat when I’m tired or stressed. Sometimes I have other coping mechanisms for these things. But when that automatic thought pops up that “I eat because I’m tired and stressed,” I overlook the other more positive behaviors I have and focus solely on this negative one, making me more likely to engage in it.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of eating when I’m tired or stressed? Well, I tend to feel more energized and relaxed afterward, but this feeling doesn’t last long and it doesn’t usually solve the fundamental issue. So this thought that “I eat because I’m tired or stressed” isn’t necessarily true and it definitely isn’t helpful.
Can we rephrase it? If I start saying to myself, “When I’m tired I nap, when I’m stressed I problem solve, and when I need to fuel my body I eat,” will it be more likely that my behaviors will reflect these thoughts?
Let’s move on to the next one. “I’m addicted to sweets.”
I’ve realized I’ve written this exact phrase in most of my posts as well. As for cognitive distortions (if you don’t know what those are, check out this link) this is definitely labeling. Instead of thinking “I eat a lot of sweets,” I think, “I’m a sugar addict”. This thought process personalizes my behavior and makes it a part of my core identity and sense of self, rather than just a behavior I sometimes engage in.
If this behavior is now a part of my identity, it will make it that much more difficult to change. When it comes to wanting to change a behavior, it’s important to separate the behavior from our self identity. Eating a lot of junk food is something I sometimes do, but it is not a part of who I am; it is simply a behavior that I have control over and can change.
Alright, I would love to get into the cognitive behavioral psychology of the rest of our self sabotaging thoughts, but I’m afraid this article is getting long and boring. I will address further harmful ways of thinking in a part II of this article.