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Avoiding Autopilot Eating

By Janet Helm MS, RD

Distracted Eating

We make about 200 daily food decisions. Yet, many people are not fully focused on these choices, and they’re unaware that lots of small things influence what they eat – including plate size, package size, people around us, and distractions, such as watching TV or working on the computer. It’s what Cornell researcher Brian Wansink calls mindless eating.

It turns out, we don’t have our mind on a lot of the choices we make throughout the day. A study conducted at Duke University found that more than 40 percent of the actions people perform each day aren’t actual decisions, but habits. The habits we form impact so many parts of our lives, including what we put in our mouths. That’s the subject of a fascinating book called “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It” by Charles Duhigg.

Before you can break a bad habit and create more positive, health-promoting behaviors you need to understand how habits work, according to Duhigg, who says habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, he says, the brain will try to make almost any regular routine into a habit because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

Habits become automatic decisions that don’t require us to think. We’re just on autopilot. They just become part of our routine. To be created, habits need three things: a cue or trigger that gets us started, a behavior, and a reward. It’s that reward that we begin to crave, and that’s what fuels this “habit loop.” So when a habit begins to start for you, it means your brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. Unless you deliberately fight a bad habit– unless you find new, healthier routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.

You can begin to break your habit loops when you start recognizing the triggers that get you shifting into automatic gear. Or perhaps it means finding new cues and rewards to help you stick to your intentions. A habit can’t be fully eradicated, but it can be replaced, Duhigg says. If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.

To keep a habit changed, you need to believe that change is possible. That’s what social scientists call self-efficacy. You need to believe that you can succeed. It also helps to work on small steps and celebrate little victories. Sometimes there’s a “keystone” habit that helps other habits fall into place. For many people a keystone habit is exercise. Once you start being more active, it seems to help you adopt other good habits.

I’ve been really interested in the power of habits because that’s the focus of a book I’ve been working on this year with the editors of Cooking Light called The Food Lover’s Healthy Habits Cookbook. It will help you adopt 12 healthy habits. Each chapter is a different habit – from eating three more veggies a day to being active 30 minutes a day for three days a week.  It’s all about creating new behaviors – one step at a time – so these decisions start to become automatic.

What are the habits you want to break, and what’s a new routine you want to focus on?

Photo: Wavebreak Media
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