Janice — I come home from work, and I walk straight to the refrigerator. Am I hungry? I doubt it. I wasn't even thinking about food two minutes ago. But here I am, keenly interested in what’s inside this appliance. This happens every day.
Do you have mindless eating-related habits, too? When you sit down to watch television, do you also sit down with a crunchy (by which we mean sugary, salty, &/or fatty) snack? When you go for a coffee break at work or between classes, does that automatically include a donut or a bag of chips?
In our previous post that concerned cravings, we cited former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler’s book “The End of Overeating (1),” in which he discusses “conditioned hypereating,” a behavior he defines as:
…an automatic response to widely available food and its cues…driven by motivational forces we find difficult to control. Conditioned hypereating works the same way as other ‘stimulus-response’ disorders in which reward is involved, such as compulsive gambling and substance abuse. Such disorders are characterized by a high degree of sensitivity of sensory stimuli, and they typically lead to a perceived loss of control, an inability to feel satisfied, and obsessive thinking… More than many habits, conditioned hypereating involves stimuli we have come to depend on for comfort. Their positive emotional charge drives our behavior… Conditioned hypereating is a biological challenge, not a character flaw.
Here’s how habits form: you know from past experience that eating a cookie (or six) will soothe your sadness or bad mood or anger or frustration or stress or boredom — at least temporarily. After you’ve done this enough times, the emotional component doesn’t even need to be there — eating the cookie becomes increasingly automatic. That’s how habits develop: a recurring situation leads to a recurring behavior, omitting a rational thought process between the two. There have been plenty of studies that bear this out and demonstrate that obesity is associated with difficulties in inhibiting impulsive behavior (2,3). Honestly, though, did we really need studies to prove that?
Remember, though, that habits, like cravings, are not commands. They are bundled behaviors that get repeated until they become automatic. Breaking a habit is hard, but it can be done. What we propose is to first of all, replace the “automatic” part of the habit with conscious, deliberate thought. Do you have to respond in the same way to a situation that you always have? You probably don’t. Think about your routines — what you do when you get up each morning, what your work/study breaks look like, what you prepare or buy for meals, what you do when you get home, how you spend your relaxation time. Once you’re aware of how a routine has morphed into a destructive habit, then you can replace the unwanted habit with a new one. This actually works — we swear! The original habit truly does become remarkably less powerful over time as the new, healthier habit gets repeated. Here are some examples:
- Your current routine may be that you wake up, roll over, and scroll through Facebook for 20 minutes. Maybe those 20 minutes can be used to take a 20-minute brisk walk. Starting your morning with movement and fresh air can be an energizing way to start your day. Tell the truth: do you feel energized after scrolling through Facebook?
- When you get home at the end of the day, your current habit may be to grab some snacks, sit down on the couch, and turn on Netflix. Instead, you can create a new routine of walking straight to your bedroom, putting on some workout clothes, and then doing 30 minutes of yoga or free weights or Pilates. Or perhaps you’ll stop at the gym before you even get home.
- Before the Netflix marathon starts, instead of getting out the chips, you may want to get an apple and some carrot sticks because aside from then, the den is now a food-free zone.
- It’s 10:30 am, time for your daily coffee break. That usually includes having a donut in the coffee room or buying the pastry of the day at the coffee shop. Before you leave to get the coffee, think about creating a new habit. You’ve brought some yogurt and fruit or a handful of nuts if you need a snack. You tell yourself that the donuts are not for you today. The pastry is not for you today. You’ll have your coffee and the healthy snack that you’ve planned for. And when you do that, please remember to congratulate yourself. Repeat. Daily.
- You step in front of the mirror and your evil twin starts the usual negative script. Instead of letting these self-defeating, untrue thoughts take over the space in your brain, you make the conscious decision to stop the script and reframe the thoughts into something positive.
Jay — I like to look at the post-it notes surrounding my mirror that are filled with positive affirmations and the aspects of myself that I’m proud of. The script becomes positive and kind.
You’ll notice that almost all of these healthy habits have to do with “stimulus control.” You no longer put unhealthy, impossible-to-resist foods in front of you because that just isn’t fair to do to yourself. In a medical article on the behavioral treatment of obesity, the authors found that the key elements of treatment included goal setting and stimulus control. This is what helps us to “change the internal and external cues” associated with problem eating and behavior (4).
Jay — Mindless eating was my bad habit. In high school, my schedule was incredibly packed and I was often traveling to and from school, extracurricular activities, and my job. I used to keep cereal and other snacks in the back seat of my car and eat them by the handful. Do you think that I was aware of how much I was eating? Of course not. I was just shoveling it in while I was driving! I don’t keep food in the car any more. I don’t want to eat unless I’m feeling in control.
Going to the movies is another example. I used to go all out before the movie and buy my favorite things — buttered popcorn, chocolate, and maybe some other candy. I would tell myself that it was okay to buy all all three things because I would be able to have self-control, that I would share with my friends, and that I could stop whenever I wanted to. Then we’d start watching the movie, and I would be so engrossed in it that I wouldn’t even realize that I’d eaten everything myself. Then I would feel ashamed and so disappointed in myself. Now when I go to the movies, if I take anything at all, I take a bag of carrots. They’re crunchy, and they keep my mouth and hands busy just like chips or popcorn would. If I want something sweet, then I take along some grapes. The point is that I’m in control and not mindlessly eating junk while I’m paying attention to something else.
Janice — I have a question: What is it about food and movies? When you go to a play, you don’t eat while you’re watching. When you go to a concert, you don’t eat while you’re listening. But when you go to the movies, it seems perfectly normal to get a bucket of popcorn the size of an actual bucket and a soda that would suffice for a trek across a desert. What the hell is that?
While you’re working toward breaking these ingrained habits, you might find yourself slipping up. Don’t worry about it — it’s okay. Slip-ups are part of the process; they do not represent failure. Don’t let the mistake derail you from your long-term goal. Stay on track and continue to think about the big picture. As Dr. Kessler puts it, “A sense of powerlessness is one of the biggest obstacles to success. If you feel you have no choice but to engage in a behavior, the arousal that drives it will persist. But if you develop a sense of your own capacity for control and recognize that you need not engage in habitual behavior, that sense of arousal will begin to diminish.”
Janice — A very tough habit for me is the one that makes me really, really want something sweet after I eat. So now I have a bunch of grapes next to the dinner plate. I also make every attempt to leave the kitchen once dinner is over. But honestly? Once in awhile, it just doesn’t work. I’ll admit it: I have a stash of sugar-free hard candy, and sometimes I’ll have one. This candy is one that I don’t like much, so I can limit myself to one. Yes, it’s garbage; yes, it upsets my stomach; and yes, it makes it harder to get past my craving for sweets. But there it is. I am so not perfect. I’m still a work in progress.
Does this all sound overly structured and rigid to you? The two of us are still very structured with regard to what we eat and how we eat. But we don’t view this as a burden — in fact, quite the opposite. This structure is a relief from the chaos of crazy eating followed by self-recrimination. Aren’t damaging habits structured and rigid, too? Habits are, in essence, routines that separate thought and the action so that you can function more efficiently. At least that's what they should be. Take control of these automatic responses so that they become tools you can rely on for reaching your goals.
(1) Kessler DA. The End of Overeating. New York: Rodale, 2009.
(2) Benard M et al. Association between Impulsivity and Weight Status in a General Population. Nutrients 2017; 9(3).
(3) Filbey F, Yezhuvath U. A multimodal study of impulsivity and body weight: Integrating behavioral, cognitive, and neuroimaging approaches. Obesity 2017; 25(1):147-154.
(4) Butryn ML et al. Behavioral treatment of obesity. Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2011; 34(4):841-59.