Changing our eating habits is difficult. In fact change in general is difficult.
Our brains are generally conditioned to take the path of least resistance. And once these paths are laid, it becomes incredibly challenging, though certainly not impossible, to change them. Imagine for a second (or if you are unlucky enough, remember), that you broke the hand you write with. We all know exactly how to sign our name, but yet somehow it feels like the first time - uncomfortable and frustrating. Or, maybe try learning to drive a manual car at 55, when you've driven automatic your whole life. It would not be easy, especially at first.
Our brains are kind of like a forest, if you blaze a trail - it takes an awful amount of work, and the more you walk that trail, the more permanent it seems to become. These paths are so well worn, even in the spring nothing seems to grow on them.
BUT if we have patience and practice, we can learn to write pretty well with our non dominant hand, drive stick and reforest a long worn path.
Transferring these ideas to our health and lifestyle choices, you can see why we all struggle to eat well. We are just riding the pre-worn trails in our brains, taking the paths we know and are comfortable with. Each time we try to do something new and "healthy", it's kind of like we are now walking through the heavy bush, getting those damn burrs stuck on our clothes and tripping over branches. Eventually, we get frustrated enough with all that work, and we jump back on the trail the moment we get the opportunity. And now we are back in those bad habits and right where we started.
If you are looking to make some more lasting healthy habits, there are some key ways we can fight against the difficult nature of change:
1) Awareness and preparation
It's important to approach any behaviour change - say, starting a walking routine - knowing full well that it will be difficult to start, but more importantly, that it will not be difficult forever. Much like learning how to write or how to drive, this new task will get exponentially easier the more you do it. Especially if you heed the advice in point #2.
Preparing for inevitable barriers is essential. What happens if you like to walk outside but you live in Canada and it's nice for like... 80 days out of the whole year. What is your back up plan? How will you overcome your particular barriers?
2) Intrinsic motivation - aka a good reason to persevere
We as human beings are capable of withstanding some incredible hardships. In some parts of the world, we can walk 6 hours just to get clean water. We selflessly take care of others for many years. We make sacrifices for our children. We walk our dogs in nearly any weather. But when given the choice, why is making a nourishing dinner for ourselves such an insurmountable task??
One reason (there are many) is that we aren't in it for the right reasons. If you are eating a boring salad because your doctor wants you to lose weight, or you want to fit into your favourite pants, it's simply not going to last. Here, we live in a world of "should" and "shouldn't" and we are motivated by external factors. If you're unsure how to tell if you're falling into that trap, a sure sign of external motivation is this: our healthy behaviour is the first thing to drop, and the hardest to pick back up, when life gets in the way (sickness, injury, vacation/holidays, etc). Examples of external motivations include: "I should lose weight", "I want to look better", "My cholesterol is high, the doctor wants me to ____"
On the other hand, if you are making lifestyle changes based on your core values and desires, change becomes a lot more sustainable (and the reasons above seem to remedy themselves). Think of those retired men who golf every day of the week, they likely aren't doing it just to exercise; its social, competitive, outdoors, they enjoy it just as it is, and the exercise just happens to be there. There are a few great examples of intrinsic motivation:
We enjoy it. No examples needed - find something that supports your health that you actually enjoy. Make a list!
It is important to us and aligns with our values. Examples include: vegetarians/vegan, we don't trust corporations to take care of our health and therefore reject processed foods, we want to be good role models for our family, we want to make our elderly years lively and not grim.
It makes us feel good. Examples include: We know that exercising regularly makes us feel awesome, eating junk makes us feel like junk, eating fruit and vegetables improves our bowels, etc.
The reasons be our actions can make or break our attitudes and perseverance when things get tough. If we are getting a benefit from our healthy behaviours, whether for social reasons, mental health benefits, or how it makes us feel - it is incredibly powerful.
You might notice that you have some overlap between the two. Maybe you are eating better in order to lose weight, and notice other benefits. From what I've seen, the drive to lose weight can all too often get in our way of succeeding in the long term. If the scale slows, stops moving or numbers start to go up, nine times out of ten we abandon our health kick and assume the 'diet' wasn't working, or maybe it worked but we failed. Neither of which are necessarily true. The more we can abandon our desire for weight loss, and focus on the things that are truly coming from within us, the more likely we are to actually lose weight and keep it off.
3) Environmental Engineering
Despite my love for nutrition and slight obsession with food in general, I'm still human. If I'm just getting home from work and I need a bite to eat while prepping dinner, I am not immune to the pull of immediate gratification. If I have to go into the crisper and peel and chop a carrot to munch on (because those baby carrots taste like nothingness), chances are I'm going to eat crackers. That one tiny step that seems so easy, but in the moment, especially if driven by hunger, seems like a huge hurtle to jump. We are all at high risk. Worse yet, if there was no carrots, and instead, the open cupboard displayed
an array of cookies/chips/granola bars and there was no thought to dinner, we might even be tempted to spiral into toast-for-dinner-followed-by-all-the-snacks.
So, I challenge you all to take a look at your kitchen. What is staring you in the face when you open your fridge/freezer/cupboards? Then, make the junk less accessible (i.e. hide it or don't bring it in at all) and the good stuff more accessible (i.e. actually present in your house, fruit and veg pre-prepped). This alone can guide you to make better choices. I keep good quality chocolate in my house pretty much constantly, but it's actually kept in a decorative vase. That way I'm not constantly reminded of its presence and I usually forget about it for days at a time.
4) The power of habits
Part of the reason we aren't constantly overwhelmed by everything we are doing is because of these well worn pathways in our brain I was complaining about earlier, and we can make them work for us instead. Imagine how challenging your adult life would be if you had to try really hard and concentrate while walking, breathing, blinking, typing, writing, driving, chewing, and talking. We may never accomplish much else. But our brains allow these well worn paths to operate in the background. So, our minds can wander elsewhere. It's really quite fascinating. This is how habits work, we rarely need much willpower to brush our teeth or shower, it just happens. And the same can happen with health supportive behaviours.
Keystone habits are habits that are like runaway trains that ripple positive benefits throughout the rest of your life. I'll use the walking example from above, lets say you go from sedentary to walking 15-30 mins daily in the mornings. That ripple may give you more energy, boost your confidence, help you sleep better and can even lead to you making better decisions in your health. Five for the price of one!
Other examples may be: making your bed in the morning, keeping your kitchen clean, waking up at the same time every day, stopping eating at the same time every night.
Much of the importance of habits is the regular pattern of it, if you are walking sporadically - random, unpredictable times - it's very challenging to create a habit. However, if we can "chain" it onto another habit we already have, or even replace one we already have it's very helpful. For example: maybe your meditation practice sneaks into your bedtime routine, stretching, yoga or walking sneaks into the morning routine, breakfast sneaks into your coffee routine. That way we are tacking on a habit to those well-worn pathways in our brain, rather than creating a whole new habit out of thin air. If you are uncertain how to turn this into something tangible, try brainstorming all the things you do every single day already, and then try to build on them.
Remember, nothing changes if you change nothing. Making your life look a little different is essential to moving forward. But, this is about living the healthiest life you can enjoy, not the healthiest life you can suffer through or tolerate (thanks for that one Yoni). So, please make sure you enjoy the changes your making, because life is a crapshoot and all that suffering, dieting and frustration in the name of health doesn't help if we get smooshed by a bus tomorrow.