Health Advice



Environmental Nutrition: The habit of healthy eating

UHN staff, Environmental Nutrition on

Published in Health & Fitness

How many times have you reached for a cookie without even realizing you were doing it? Or maybe you find yourself automatically stopping for fast food on your way home from work?

We often think that our food choices are a conscious decision we make every day. In truth, many of the foods we buy, cook and eat are largely based on habit, developed through weeks, months or years of repetition — habits we may not even be aware of.

What is a habit?

Habits are actions or behaviors performed automatically without conscious thought — things we do without even thinking about it. According to Wendy Wood, author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits,” research shows about 43% of behaviors are driven by habit, which means about 43% of what people do every day is repeated in the same context, usually while they are thinking about something else.

Habits are internalized behaviors learned through experience. They consist of three components: contextual cues, repetition and rewards.

Contextual cues generally relate to a particular time or place — think of walking into your kitchen each morning and making a cup of coffee or pouring a bowl of cereal. They can also be connected to a situation or activity. Cues are like triggers; they form a “mental association” with the activity.

Repetition is another key element, as a behavior must be repeated many times before it becomes automatic.

Finally, there must be a reward, something that will reinforce the activity and make you want to do it again and again. Rewards can be intrinsic or extrinsic.

“When it comes to food, taste is the most immediate reward. Think of a ripe strawberry or a juicy peach,” says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president/CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation, “Second would be the positive feeling you get from eating healthy. It makes you happy, makes you feel good about yourself and gives you a sense of pride,” says Kapsak.

Developing healthy eating habits doesn’t happen overnight. Initially this will take some time and effort but eventually it will pay off and you will do it effortlessly. Here are some ways to get you started:


Breaking bad habits

Recognizing bad eating habits is the first step in addressing them. Keep a journal of what and when you eat and pay attention to specific cues. Do you eat when you are bored, alone or at the mall with friends? Then identify the eating habits you want to change.

According to Wendy Wood, those who had most success in conquering bad habits changed or eliminated the habit cue or context. For example, if cookies are your downfall, don’t keep them in the house. If you regularly stop for fast food, think about changing your route home so you don’t pass the restaurant. And, don’t worry if you slip up once in a while — adding new habits takes time.

Bottom line

“People try to change behavior by getting motivated (how healthy and fit I’ll be!) and exerting willpower. But these don’t last very long — they are effortful, require thought, and are not much fun. Controlling desires is also counterproductive,” says Wood.

“Instead, people need to understand that repeated actions are very much dependent on our immediate environments. People would do better to focus on making a behavior easy to repeat — I buy already-chopped veg so that it’s easy to add to meals when I am cooking. It’s now my habit. People also repeat actions when they are enjoyable. If you hate broccoli, you won’t form a broccoli eating habit.” Instead, pick what you like and stick with that, then you can explore more later.

(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384.

©2022 Belvoir Media Group. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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