Habit formation—it’s essential to maintaining a healthy diet. Habits are the small decisions and actions you perform daily. What you repeatedly ultimately forms who you are. Therefore, if your nutrition is poor it’s a direct result of bad dietary habits.
Likewise, if your nutrition is on point, it’s a direct result of good dietary habits.
Habits are thought to be developed through a 3-step loop.
- Step 1 is a trigger – an event or action that reminds you of and initiates a habit. Example: Becoming “snacky” between meals.
- Step 2 is the habit itself – the behaviour you (repeatedly) perform in response to the trigger. Based on the above example: Eating a sweet treat.
- Step 3 is the reward – the benefit associated with behaviour. Following on with the example: Energy levels and mood are lifted for a bit.
You can layer any habit, dietary or otherwise, onto these three steps. While people may display the same behaviours (habits), their triggers and perceived rewards will all be different depending on their personality traits.
How rewards are perceived is especially different between individuals. For some, the reward from that sweet pick-me-up is better energy levels for the next 40 minutes. For others, the reward is more psychological – a comforting feeling. Either way, the reward keeps refuelling the behaviour.
So how do we improve dietary habits? I think that reverse engineering the 3-step loop works like magic.
- Start with the reward. What will your reward be for eating better? Improved performance, losing body fat, greater self-confidence, fitting your wedding clothing perfectly, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. There are many, but you have to pick one to three rewards for YOU.
- Now look at what habits you need to change and develop in order to get you to that reward. This will again be different for everyone, but make them relevant to the reward. If you know what the benefit will be, it motivates you to maintain the habit.
- Find a trigger that initiates the required behaviours. Triggers can be a time, location, event, emotion or other people. Set an alarm for each meal and snack.Associate the work canteen (location) with bad food to prevent you from eating there. Post-exercise (event) is a good time for a more high GI meal or snack.
Emotions are typically triggers for bad behaviour (like comfort eating) so implement exercise behaviour for when you’re feeling down. The people trigger is more powerful than you realise, so surround yourself with people who are at the very least supportive of your goals.
There’s a fourth step that I think fits in under the rewards step – visualisation. Visualise how you will feel when you attain the reward. “I will feel [insert emotion] when I lose some body fat.” It’s a well proven method.
It’s all a bit easier said than done, though. And that’s exactly why we offer lifestyle challenges. Sure, it’s a nutrition education tool. But more importantly, the challenges are a method of instilling better (sustainable) lifestyle behaviours.
It takes about 21 days to eliminate a bad habit and 90 days to establish a good one. During a challenge we kick bad habits and set you up for establishing good ones!