Eating habits and behaviors
Food gives our bodies the energy we need to function. For many people, changing eating habits is very hard.
You may have had certain eating habits for so long, you do not think much about them. Or you do not even realize they are unhealthy.
Keep a Journal
A food journal is a good tool to help you learn more about your eating habits.
- Keep a food journal for 1 week.
- Write down what you eat, how much, and what times of day you are eating.
- Include notes on what else you were doing and how you were feeling, such as being hungry, stressed, tired, or bored. For example, maybe you were at work and were bored. So you got a snack from a vending machine.
At the end of the week, review your journal and look at your eating patterns. Decide which habits you want to change. Setting goals is the best way to make new habits stick. Take small steps toward these improvements so they become long-term habits. Do NOT overwhelm yourself with too many goals.
Also, recognize the healthy habits you already have and feel good about them. Many people focus only on their poor habits. This can make you feel stressed and give up trying to change. So don't judge your behaviors too harshly.
Some of your new, healthier habits might include:
- Drink skim or low-fat (1%) milk instead of 2% or whole milk.
- Eat fruit for dessert instead of cookies (or skip dessert all together).
- Schedule times to eat your meals and snacks.
- Plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks to increase your chance of success. Keep healthy snacks at work. Pack healthier lunches that you make at home.
- Pay attention to your feelings of hunger. Recognize the difference between physical hunger and habitual eating.
Think about what triggers or prompts may be causing some of your eating habits.
- Is there something around you that makes you eat when you are not hungry, or prompts you to make less healthy food choices?
- Does the way you feel make you want to eat?
Look at your journal and circle any regular or repetitive triggers. Some of these might be:
- Seeing your favorite snack in the pantry or vending machine
- Watching television
- Feeling stressed by something at work or in another area of your life
- Having no plan for dinner after a long day
- Going to work events where food is served
- Stopping at fast-food restaurants for breakfast and choosing high fat, high calorie foods
- Needing a pick-me-up toward the end of your workday
Start by focusing on one or two triggers that occur most often during your week. Think about what you can do to avoid those triggers, such as:
- Do NOT walk past the vending machine to get to your desk, if possible.
- Decide what you will have for dinner early in the day so that you have a plan after work.
- Keep unhealthy snacks out of your house. If someone else in your household buys these snacks, devise a plan to keep them out of sight.
- Suggest having fruit and vegetables, instead of sweets, during workplace meetings. Or bring healthier selections in yourself.
Replace Unhealthy Habits with New Healthy Ones
Once you have changed one or two old unhealthy habits, try changing one or two more.
- Avoid skipping meals, especially breakfast.
- An old saying goes: "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper." Breakfast sets the tone for your day. A hearty, healthy breakfast will give your body the energy it needs to get you to lunch.
- Don't let yourself get too hungry. Missing regular meals and snacks often leads to overeating or making unhealthy food choices.
- Enjoy a good lunch that will satisfy you, and a healthy afternoon snack that will keep you from becoming too hungry before dinner.
- Find healthy choices for snacks and divide them up in ways that work with your daily schedule.
- If you eat candy at the end of the day for energy, have a cup of herbal tea and a small handful of almonds instead.
- Eat fruit and yogurt in the mid-afternoon, about 3 or 4 hours after lunch.
- Eat slowly. Eating too quickly leads to overeating.
- Give the food you eat time to reach your stomach so that your brain can recognize that you are full. If you feel stuffed about 20 minutes after you stop eating, you may be eating to quickly.
- Put down your fork between bites. Wait until you have swallowed your mouthful of food before taking another bite.
- Eat only when you are hungry.
- Find other coping mechanisms besides eating. When you feel worried, tense, or bored, call a friend or go for a walk to help you feel better.
- Give yourself time to relax from daily stressors. Taking a mental or physical break may help you feel better, without turning to food for comfort.
- Plan your meals. Knowing what you will eat ahead of time can help you avoid buying unhealthy foods (impulse buying).
- Control your portion sizes. It is hard to eat only a few chips when the whole bag is in front of you. So put a few chips into a bowl, and put the bag away. Do this with other packaged foods as well.
- Get rid of your unhealthy stashes of food, at home and at work. For instance, replace your candy dish with a bowl of fruit or nuts.
It may take a while before you can turn your unhealthy habits into new, healthy ones. Remember, it took you a while to form your habits, and it may take just as long to change them. Do not give up.
If you start an old habit again, think about why you went back to it. Try again to replace it with a new habit. One slip does not mean you are a failure. Keep trying!
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pe diatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.