Dieting Made Easy: Changing Your Diet Behaviors
By Chris Zinn
I just finished reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear and some concepts from the book that apply well to nutrition are fresh in my mind. So I thought... Why not write a blog about it?
One thing most people focus on when dieting or trying to lose weight is... well, food. That's fair right? I'd agree that the type of food you eat is pretty important as it relates to losing weight and becoming a healthier person.
However, I think there is something that a lot of people overlook that can be especially important, and sometimes the limiting factor in weight loss.
That is - eating behaviors and your relationship with food.
Sure you can focus on quality foods, eating enough protein and vegetables, maintaining a caloric deficit, yadda, yadda, yadda. But if you don't change (or at the very least explore) your eating habits and relationship with food you won't be able to make lasting, sustainable changes.
One of the main things that Clear outlines in Atomic Habits, are the four rules of behavior change. If you wanted to start a new, healthy habit the rules would look like this:
make it obvious;
make it attractive;
make it easy; and
make it satisfying.
Alternatively, if you wanted to reduce or eliminate an unhealthy habit, the rules would be inverted:
make it invisible;
make it unattractive;
make it difficult; and
make it unsatisfying.
Clear uses these rules as a framework to change any behaviors, but I want to specifically focus on how these rules apply to changing nutrition habits. Let's go through each rule as it relates to eating.
1. Make it Obvious/Invisible
Something I talk about with all my nutrition clients is the idea of awareness of our habits. Usually, during the first few weeks, I don't even ask my clients to change how they're eating or what they're eating. The first thing we always do is to start to become mindful of what they're currently doing.
Before trying to add new habits, it's a good idea to get a handle on current ones. What I'll commonly hear from folks who are taking stock of their current habits are things like:
"Oh wow, I'm starting to become more aware of what I'm doing."
" I didn't even know I was doing that!"
"I didn't even realize I was a stress eater."
Slowing down and becoming aware of the things you're currently doing makes it much easier to find the things you need to change. After all, you can't fix what you aren't aware of.
"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate."
Once you're aware of the habits you want to change, you can more easily chip away at them.
Let's say you figure out that you end up mindlessly snacking when you watch TV. The first thing you need to do is to invert the first rule of making it obvious by making it invisible. To do this, you want to make sure those snacks are not in any place that will trigger you to grab them and snack. Hide them away. Make the snack invisible.
2. Make it Attractive/Unattractive
Another thing discussed in Atomic Habits was the idea of "wanting" vs. "liking". Clear states that we have many more areas of the brain dedicated to wanting compared to areas that are dedicated to liking. This is why the anticipation of a thing or an event is oftentimes better than that thing or event itself.
Because of this, we have a ton of cravings throughout the day for things that we think we want. These cravings drive our behavior. To get a handle on these desires and change a habit, you can make something more or less attractive.
To make a bad habit seem unattractive, you need to start associating that unwanted habit with negative feelings or emotions. One way to do this is to outline the consequences of the bad habit before engaging in it and highlight the benefits of avoiding the bad habit. Even if, in the beginning, you don't change the habit but instead list the reasons why the habit is bad beforehand, you will make progress towards shedding the bad habit because you will eventually associate that bad habit with bad things.
So, now we can start to build on our previous work.
First, you need to become aware that you are about to mindlessly snack, or that you are currently doing it.
Next, sticking with the previous example, to make mindlessly snacking seem unattractive you need to outline the consequences of eating chips without thinking while you watch TV, as well as highlight the benefits of avoiding mindless eating. E.g.:
"If I skip the chips while I watch TV, I will move closer towards my weight loss goal, and have more calories to eat what I really want later on."
"If I keep mindlessly snacking, I will gain unwanted weight, and will move further away from my goal weight."
3. Make it Easy/Difficult
The next rule of behavior change is to make an action either easy or difficult, depending on whether or not you want to shed a bad habit or add a good one.
The goal is to make the behavior you want to do as easy as possible, and the behavior you want to eliminate as hard as possible. Increasing or reducing the friction (aka, the obstacle between you and the action) will make it easier or harder for you to do.
If you want to eliminate mindless snacking, change the activity you mindlessly snack during. So instead of sitting down to watch TV in the evening, read a book. Or if you still want to watch TV, have something that occupies your time/hands while you watch instead of snacking (i.e., knitting).
If you can't avoid the snacking, ensure you have a healthy snack prepped and ready to go, so that when you decide you truly are hungry you can grab some peppers or leftover chicken instead of potato chips.
4. Make it Satisfying/Unsatisfying
Lastly, modifying how satisfying/unsatisfying a behavior is may be one of the more important rules for behavior change, and Clear even refers to this one as "the cardinal rule of behavior change".
"What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided."
When you are making choices that don't benefit you immediately, you are usually making choices for your future self's benefit (e.g., saving money, dieting, putting in extra work hours). This is also called delayed gratification.
On the other hand, when you are making choices that do benefit you immediately, the focus is on instant gratification (e.g., feeling full, feeling relaxed). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but being aware of the choices you are making and whether they are benefiting your current self or your future self can help you build positive habits.
To quit mindlessly snacking, one strategy is to increase the satisfaction of a positive habit by making the desired goal or habit as easy as possible.
For example, you can set a goal that promotes delayed gratification but make it super easy to accomplish initially.
To do this, set a goal to avoid mindlessly eating for 2 minutes. Easy right? Almost too easy. But that's the point! You can accomplish this with no problem, and get the satisfaction of completing your goal. By doing this, you'll feel as though you completed your goal, and get that immediate reward.
After slowly increasing the time you avoid mindless snacking, you'll eventually get to the point where you can avoid mindlessly snacking for the entire evening.
You could alternatively punish yourself after realizing that you mindlessly snacked by committing to do something that you hate as a punishment for mindlessly snacking.
To make this even more powerful, you can commit to a spouse, partner, or friend to do the task you don't like when you find yourself mindlessly snacking. Having that extra accountability along with the "punishment" for your unwanted habit can be quite powerful in promoting the desired change.
Starting Small and Being Mindful
When you start with changing your habits, small changes are your best friend. Little wins build confidence and momentum. That means making sure your goals and habits aren't too big to start. They need to be so easy and small that it's impossible to fail.
Like I mentioned under rule #1, you can't change a habit if you don't know it's occurring. The best thing you can do, without even changing your behavior, is to notice what you currently do.
After that, following the basic guidelines of the rules above will help to change unwanted eating habits.
Remember, we're playing the long game here. It won't be easy, and it won't be quick, but it will be worth it!
Right now, we're offering a free Nutrition Success Session with Chris to help you discover the right path to your nutrition goals and if nutrition coaching is the best option for you.
Take advantage of this offer right now by contacting us here! Simply put "Nutrition Success Session" in your message, and we'll get in touch to schedule your free session!