People often know what they should eat to fuel their workouts, support good health, and manage conditions such as type II diabetes and high blood pressure, but they don’t always make the best decisions about food. Here is why it is difficult for people to make healthier choices.
Every day, we make an average of 200 decisions about what and how much to eat in a variety of settings: at home, at work, and in grocery stores and restaurants. The type and amount of sweetener to put in our coffee and whether to pack a lunch or buy it may seem minor choices when considered alone, but those decisions and others affect weight and well-being in the long run.
Food decisions are complicated by our environment which encourage poor choices, discourage physical activity, and contribute to high rates of being overweight and obesity in adults and children. Drive-through windows accelerate our ability to buy high-calorie meals and snacks. Chain restaurants serve large portions of calorie-laden foods and beverages, making it difficult to judge proper portion sizes and avoid overeating. Proximity matters too. One recent study found that when office workers kept candy in plain sight, they ate more of it than when they kept it in a desk drawer. Easy access to nutrient-poor foods in stores and in the workplace lures consumers into making impulsive, unhealthy choices, especially when they are hungry.
The home environment also affects how much people eat and drink. Many of our choices, good and bad, may stem from the company we keep. When researchers analyzed data from social networks of adults, they found that the chances of becoming obese increased by 37% if a spouse had become obese, 40% if a sibling had, and 57% if a friend had gained a lot of weight. The issue cuts both ways: though friends and family may undermine healthy food decisions, they can also encourage better ones.
It may be that no matter how motivated or unmotivated we are to eat well, we mimic the diets of those around us, changing our perception of what is normal or right for us, for worse or for better. Couples may gain weight after marriage, but one partner’s healthy habits can also be contagious. Researchers found that when only one marital partner participated in a weight loss program, the spouse lost weight, too, without being on a structured diet.
Decisions about food and physical activity are ultimately personal choices, but it is difficult to ignore that the deck is stacked against us in our quest for good health and weight control. When it comes to changing for the better, it’s been said that motivation is what gets you started and habits are what keep you going. Forming healthier habits helps to counteract a host of environmental influences that cue us to eat more than we should.
We are creatures of habit, recurrent behavior that’s become involuntary and hard to give up. It’s estimated that more than 40% of our daily actions are habits, not decisions. The distinction between habits and decisions is noteworthy because it affects how we help establish positive behaviors.
Habit making and decision making happen in different parts of the brain: habits in the basal ganglia and decisions in the prefrontal cortex. Habits are “default” behaviors that require little or no contemplation like brushing your teeth before bed and tying your sneakers. Habits are timesavers; they free up the brain to think about other tasks.
With regard to health and well-being, there are good habits, like having whole-grain cereal, low-fat milk and fruit for breakfast; and negative ones, such as starting your days with a cigarette. Behavior experts say habits are loops that happen in three steps:
- The cue, an urge altering your brain to go on automatic pilot. Cues can include time of day (noon equals lunchtime), location and emotions (such as stress).
- The routine, the action you take to satisfy the urge.
- The reward, which may be the delight of biting into a piece of chocolate, the relaxing effects of a cocktail, or the stress reduction you get from taking a run. Rewards train the brain to remember and repeat the behavior loop over and over, making it deeply ingrained and difficult to budge.
Awareness is the first step to habit change, and it’s helpful for everyone to understand the structure of unhealthy habits in order to recognize the behavior patterns and see ways to improve them. Experts say it is better to focus on establishing good habits rather than banishing the bad. Researchers found it took 18-254 days for people to “automate” doing a certain healthy behavior every day.
We constantly struggle to balance our innate need for instant gratification by eating junk, with our rational long-term goals, such as eating better to lose weight or improve cholesterol. Our brains are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain which people interpret as dietary deprivation. Our preference for pleasure over good health only adds to the challenge of dodging temptation.
Self-control is vital for making healthy food choices and forming new, default behaviors that can offset environmental cues to eat the wrong foods. Willpower is in all of us and we practice it everyday. The struggle to do better is harder for some than others. Striving to form new habits saps inner energy reserves and at the end of the day there might not be enough self-control left to get to the gym or to resist that bag of chips.
While willpower may waver, however, it can also grow. Self-control is a lot like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Research shows that strengthening willpower in one area of our life increases self-control in others which may include making better eating choices and getting regular physical activity.
Here are some hints for making better choices and lasting changes:
- Plan to succeed. It’s much easier to make poor food decisions when you are famished. On Sundays, plan your meals and snacks for the week and shop for healthful ingredients. Meals and snacks should have adequate protein and fiber filled foods such as fruits or vegetables to promote fullness.
- Affirm any progress. Losing 20 pounds may seem impossible to some; so may working out four days a week. Reward yourself for any positive change that works toward a greater goal; for example, ridding the pantry of junk food or walking 10 minutes a day is progress. Successfully making one better choice encourages another and establishes healthier habits.
- Focus on pleasurable, healthy foods. Though pleasure is often blamed for dietary setbacks, it can be used to help the brain lock into a healthy habit, such as making eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains more enticing. For example, dipping baby carrots in hummus or peanut butter.
- Don’t stray from eating patterns. Most people feel deprived when asked to make radical eating changes, such as substituting salads for burgers and fries. Choosing a single burger and a small order of fries is more reasonable. Baby steps will lead to more healthful behaviors.
- Acknowledge the limits of self-control. Don’t task willpower by encouraging too many dietary changes all at once. Take on one habit at a time, such as adding a serving of fruit or vegetable to a meal everyday.
- Take it slowly. People often expect quick results. Remember that it can take a long time for an action to become habitual, so short-term thinking will establish long-term behavior changes. Stop concentrating on how much weight you want to lose; concentrate instead on how you will behave at the next meal or in the next exercise session. This will help lessen the burden of lifestyle changes that seem insurmountable.
- Keep your eyes on the prize. Deciding to lose weight or choosing healthier food is one thing; forming the habits required to accomplish those goals is quite another. Find the emotion that motivates you to a highly desirable end, such as getting strong enough to travel with ease, or staying energetic for your children or grandchildren.
- Take the lead in your social network. Navigate challenging social situations by bringing healthier dishes to family gatherings or eating a healthy small meal before heading to a party to avoid overeating. Order lower calorie, healthier entrées first rather than following someone else’s lead. Organize walking or running groups at work or in the neighborhood or join a local gym to garner social support for your efforts.