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How to Break an Unhealthy Eating Habit

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Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs
By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RDRegistered dietitianJanuary 18, 2019

Many years ago, I was a young dietitian doing nutrition counseling at a local rec center. One of my clients was a 40-something dad who really wanted to lose weight. He stopped at Starbucks every day of the week for a pastry, and boy, did we spend a lot of time talking about that. Could he drive a different route so he didn’t pass it? Could he pack a healthier (but still yummy) alternative? Could he limit his Starbucks trips to once or twice a week?

Months later, when I left that job for another one, he was still stopping at Starbucks every day. In hindsight, I wish I could go back in time and stop harping on those croissants. A daily pastry run could surely be classified as an “unhealthy eating habit” for someone trying to lose weight, but in his case, that daily ritual that was important to him—and he just didn’t want to change it.

I have a similar habit (no, dietitians aren’t perfect, by-the-book eaters!). I eat tortilla chips when I’m making dinner. There’s something about 6pm rolling around that has me craving something salty and crunchy. I don’t eat half the bag—just a handful while I’m cooking. My nightly chip routine would never win me a healthy eating award, but I’m okay with it.

That’s what you have to decide: Is your habit something you truly want to break? If it’s not, find a workaround by adding healthy foods to your day (like an extra veggie at dinner to fill you up) or taking something out to balance it (like a dessert).

If you do want to break your habit, here’s a game-plan:

Make the connection: Do you eat chocolate chips out of the bag when you stay up late to do work or watch TV? Do you stop for donuts every Sunday on the way home from church? Are you prone to raid the cabinets when you haven’t had much sleep the night before? Figure out the WHY behind your habit.

Find an alternative: That may mean taking an alternative route home from church or establishing an entirely new habit, like making smoothies or scrambled eggs when you get home. Focusing on sleep instead of your eating habits may naturally get you back on track. Remember that you fell into those habits because they felt good, so be sure whatever you’re doing instead is enjoyable too.

Seek support: Ask your spouse, co-worker, or friend to help you. People who care about you will want you to feel better. Could your co-worker make a cup of tea with you in the afternoon instead of hitting the vending machine together? Could you and your spouse watch TV in a cozy spare bedroom (away from the kitchen) instead of the living room to break the snack cycle?

Give yourself time: Habits aren’t easy to break once they’re ingrained—and it takes time to build new ones. Focus on slow, gradual progress instead of going cold turkey. And never label yourself as “weak” or as having “no willpower” if you fall back into old patterns. It’s not about strength–it’s about finding routines that are healthy and doable for you in the long term.

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About the Author
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is a Contributing Editor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a “no-judgments” zone all about feeding families.

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