habit change

How to Change An Unhealthy Habit

“A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.”  Erasmus

I read this quote in a book written by a friend in Aiken, Peggy Wojtowicz.  Her book, Joy on High Places, is a memoir about how God transformed her life in many ways including her eating habits.

Habit Change is Hard.

I know this both personally and from the testimonies of my nutrition clients.  66% of Americans say that they are on a weight-loss diet at any given time, but people in our society are getting fatter by the year.  In fact, a number of research studies on dieting have shown that only 5% of people who go on diets maintain their weight loss over time.  These diets fail because people think of them as a temporary solution, instead of a permanent lifestyle.

I advocate permanent eating changes, not temporary diets.  Ginger’s Food Rules are principles that can be adopted to help you attain your best level of health.  Food is the first and best medicine that God has given us to maintain our physical temples.

At our house my husband does the vast majority of the yard work.  He does not like to continually rake up leaves, so in the fall he waits for most of the trees to lose their leaves before he rakes.  We had one tree in the front yard whose leaves would turn brown but not fall off.  The leaves were still there long after the other trees’ branches were bare.  I did not understand why this tree held on to its leaves until I read Peggy’s book and learned about marcescense.   This is a trait of beeches, some oaks and a few other tree species. They retain their dead brown leaves until the new green buds form in the spring.  The new leaf buds then push the dead leaves off.

Why Habit Change Often Fails

If you are drinking a lot of sugary sodas and try to eliminate them cold turkey, you will most likely fail.  Many people who quit smoking or drinking gain weight, because they substitute eating unhealthy, addictive foods for the addictive tobacco or alcohol. People who go on diets are often able to suppress their unhealthy eating habits for a while.  They lose weight through sheer willpower.  But then, when their willpower dies or when other stressful events occur, they revert back to the old eating habits and the lost weight returns.  It is much like trying to hold down a large beach ball under water.  If the ball is very big, you can hold it down for a while, but then as you get tired, the ball will pop back up to the surface.

The Structure of Habits

According to Charles Duhig, in his book The Power of Habit, habits have a three-part structure.   First is a cue.  This can be anything such as the time of day, an emotion you feel, or a visual cue.  For many people, the cue of seeing a box of donuts is what causes them to crave donuts.  They never think about donuts, buy them for themselves or eat them unless they see (and smell!) a box of hot Krispy Kremes on the counter.  When I was working at USCA I had a 3 pm time cue to crave a work break.

The second part of the habit cycle is the routine.  A person’s routine may be simple or complex.  Many people have a rather complex morning routine. Almost without thinking they  get up, make coffee, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth and leave for work.  They don’t have to think about the steps in the routine and the steps are almost always performed in the same order.  Routines are useful and help people conserve their brain power.

My routine at 3 pm involved getting up from my desk, going to the vending machine in another part of the building, purchasing and then eating a snack.  My snack of choice was usually Necot cookies. These are a luscious (!) mix of sweet and salty, with virtually no nutritional value.  But like all sweet and salty mixtures, they can be very addictive.

The final and third part the habit cycle is the reward.  A reward can be emotional or physical.  If you are truly hungry and eat a nourishing meal, then the reward is the cessation of hunger.  If you have an efficient morning routine, your reward is getting all the activities you need and want to do accomplished. You leave for work in a timely manner without feeling frantic.  Both of these examples are types of productive rewards.

Bad habits have rewards that are not productive. Smoking causes many negative health effects including cancer.  Continually eating too much sugar leads to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease or other negative consequences.  My Nekot snack gave me a small break from the stresses of my job but it also gave a temporary sugar-high that led later to an afternoon crash.

According to Duhigg, to change a habit you need to first identify the cue, routine and reward.  Next, while maintaining the cue and reward, you change the routine.  This is what Erasmus was referring to long ago.  The nail (routine) has to be replaced with another nail (routine).  Much as the oak tree in my yard holds onto its leaves until the new leaves are growing in, we hold onto our old habits or routines until we have new habits to replace them.

How I Changed A Poor Eating Habit

I analyzed my Necot cookie habit and found that the reward I wanted most was a small afternoon break from the stresses of my job.  Instead of going to the snack machine at 3 pm I began taking a walk outside.  USCA has a beautiful green space in the middle of campus called the quad.  I began taking at least one lap around the quad around 3 pm.  This got me out in the sunshine and fresh air for a few minutes.  Exercise has been shown to release the same type of endorphins in the body that eating sweet food does, and it is MUCH healthier for us.  Soon I was looking forward to my walking break and forgot about the vending machine.  I had successfully replaced a poor habit with a healthy one.

If you have unhealthy eating patterns that you would like to change, first identify the cue, routine and reward.  Then identify a healthy routine that you could substitute for the unhealthy routine.  A few examples are listed below.

Unhealthy Eating Healthy Substitute
Sweetened or diet soda Sparkling water with lime or lemon
Cookie Dates
Chips Dry Roasted nuts
Caffeinated Coffee Hot herbal tea
Snacking before dinner Take a 15 minute walk
Fast food drive through lunches or dinners Meal-prep salads fixings on the weekend


What unhealthy eating habits do you have?  Why not identify them and start replacing them one by one with healthier substitutes.

Leave a comment with any changes you have implemented successfully.

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