by Diane Norwood, MS, RD, CDE, Guest Contributor
Chances are you’ve tried building healthy eating habits. It is hard work and difficult to maintain them, even one at a time – especially as a busy working military spouse. You may even be down on yourself for your apparent lack of willpower and mindfulness. But maybe you haven’t heard this good news yet: building healthy eating habits is like “setting your brain to autopilot,” so you can think less about making healthy food choices every day.
This may sound too good to be true, but it turns out there’s something scientific to “muscle memory” that I believe may help you eat better. Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit,” explains the fascinating science of habit building in great detail. The most fascinating thing is that when you build habits over time, your brain is actually changed and it becomes free to think less. That is, the more habits you have, the less thinking your brain does. Freeing, indeed!
There is plenty to think about in a fast-paced life. A little work now can make life easier later, which is something we can all wrap our busy brains around.
Wouldn’t it be nice to mindfully build healthy eating habits now so that you can “set your brain to autopilot” later in at least one important area of your life?
Building Healthy Eating Habits: How To Use Mindfulness to “Set Your Brain On Autopilot”
Habits, Willpower and Mindfulness
According to Duhigg, about 40% to 45% of the decisions we make in a day aren’t actually made; they are habits we perform without thinking. Have you ever absentmindedly placed your keys somewhere, walked into another room, and completely forgotten not only where you put them, but how you got where you are? Apparently, this is normal brain behavior. (How reassuring — but I do this so often, I think I have to own it as a bad habit!)
However, this muscle memory becomes more of a problem when we absentmindedly engage in eating habits that are detrimental to our health. Have you ever sat in front of the TV and eaten an entire bag of chips or box of cookies? Or do you get up from your desk every day at 3 p.m. to purchase a large, fancy coffee drink from your favorite coffee shop? Every day you may tell yourself not to do these unhealthy behaviors, but almost every day you fail yourself.
Honestly, part of the problem is the availability of unhealthy foods; they are all around us and there’s even the possibility that highly-processed, carbohydrate-rich foods may be addictive, although this hasn’t been proven. But we can’t change the food around us. So, the other part of the problem is our willpower. Why do we lack willpower? And more importantly, how do we build willpower to change these eating habits for the better?
Mindfulness plays a big part in building more willpower, according to Duhigg. Everyone is talking about mindfulness, right? In all honesty, it struck me as psychological mumbo-jumbo when I first heard about mindfulness. As a dietitian, I thought, “Of course we want to pay attention to what we’re eating.” But Duhigg explains that in order to build more willpower to sustain healthy habits, we must plan ahead how we will react in certain situations.
I couldn’t agree more, especially with regard to food! I frequently say that planning ahead is the key to eating more “easy, real foods” and fewer processed foods. So, that’s really all there is to mindful eating! And once you mindfully plan ahead for a while, a healthy habit is formed and muscle memory sets in, making life easier — and potentially healthier.
How Habits Work
Intuitively, we may know that habits — good and bad — start with a cue, a routine is performed, and a reward allows them to continue. Duhigg calls this the “habit loop.” Cues make starting the new routine easier. Rewards make you happy you completed the new routine. Although this seems like common sense, this is actually science at work to change your brain. Keeping your habit goals small and simple will help you succeed.
But sometimes when we want to change a routine, we are overly focused on the routine itself. Sure, it’s how you identify what you want to change. But Duhigg explains that to effectively change a habit, we need to be focused on the cue and the reward as well.
For example, if you want to start running more (the routine), you could plan to run with a friend (the cue), and after your run you could eat a small piece of dark chocolate (the reward). Over the course of a few weeks, this will become a habit much easier than if you just tell yourself to run more. Eventually you won’t rely on the cues and rewards; your brain will be changed, and it will be a habit. So, are you ready to start?
3 Steps to Building Healthy Eating Habits
1. Start small. If you’re like most people, you can probably think of 10 eating behaviors you want to change for the better. But it’s important to start with just one. For example, perhaps you eat take-out food for dinner 5 times a week and want to eat more real food meals.
2. Identify the cue and make a plan for your new routine. If you simply tell yourself not to eat take-out, you almost certainly will fail at changing this behavior. Instead, think about what cues you to grab and go and plan your actions for the week.
Is it lack of knowing how to cook healthy meals?
- Spend a few minutes on Sunday looking for easy dinner recipes for the week. Try searching the Internet or Pinterest for “real food” or “paleo” to hone in on less-processed ingredients in meals.
- Try following fellow military spouse healthy food bloggers for inspiration.
- You could try healthy options from a meal-prep service, such as Blue Apron or Sun Basket (organic and special menus available).
Is it lack of time?
- You could plan to use slow cooker recipes.
- Make double batches to provide meals for at least 2 nights in a week or stock your freezer with the leftovers to have another week.
Is it that you hate to grocery shop?
- Try Amazon Prime or local grocery delivery options.
- Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) service that delivers vegetable boxes from local farms.
- Try visiting a farmers market on a weekend; it’s always good to eat local and they are so social you may forget you’re grocery shopping!
- Search for healthier take-out options, such as salads or lettuce-wrapped sandwiches or burgers, for example.
3. Then, don’t forget to reward yourself (but not with food). Maybe treat yourself to a manicure or pedicure with the money you saved by eating in for the week. Or take the family bowling or to play mini-golf.
Analyzing your eating habits to try to make them easier to achieve involves some willpower and forethought, but isn’t your family’s health worth it? Once you have been successful at changing one simple habit, in a few weeks, you can move onto another. Before you know it, you will be in the habit of eating healthier — which is as close to “autopilot” as we military spouses can get!
Diane Norwood is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and freelance health writer. She wanders the world with her Navy Pediatrician husband and their three daughters, each born in a different country. She has made it her life’s work to savor authentic, healthy foods, grapple with and summarize nutrition science, and showcase how she makes easy, real food on her blog, The Wandering RD.
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