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How to Create Healthy Habits and Overcome Emotional Eating

Fabiana Simões
January 11th, 2018 · 4 min read

Have you ever tried to tell a friend about something hilarious that happened but they don’t quite get it? They stare at you with a puzzled look. You try to repeat the story one more time, hoping to get a reaction this time, and yet nothing. No response. You both end shrugging it off. “I guess you just had to be there.”

Has this ever happened to you? I feel like this every time I try to tell people about the power of habits. Along with a significant mindset overhaul, understanding how habits work was essential in my journey towards making peace with food and breaking free from dieting. Once I learned how to tweak my habits to serve me best, taking care of myself and my body became a lot easier. It’s just something I do. No big deal.

Still, people don’t get it. Maybe “developing better habits” doesn’t sound quite as sexy as the latest quick-fix or fad diet they heard about on TV. I don’t know really. Or maybe, you know, they just had to be there. I keep trying though. I believe the power of habits is worth sharing with others. With you, especially. And unlike that hilarious story, when it comes to habits, it’s never too late for others to “be there” with me.

How Habits Changed The Game For Me

When I talk about habits, most people think about things like drinking more water, eating more vegetables or exercising more regularly. Don’t get me wrong; those are definitely some of the things I’m talking about when I talk about habits, but it’d be such a missed opportunity to limit the conversation to this.

Once I understood the science behind habit formation, I could do a lot more than changing my actions. I could also change my thoughts. Even though habits become mostly involuntary once they stick, the process of creating new habits can be entirely intentional. Once you’ve decided to implement a new habit, putting it in practice is largely an exercise in mindfulness and self-awareness.

The Habit Recipe

Habits are made of three phases that we repeat over and over again until a behavior becomes automatic: the trigger, the action, and the reward. In an attempt to simplify your life, your brain associates triggers and actions so that whenever a trigger happens, you perform the action that goes with it.

Fortunately, your brain doesn’t create those associations for every single thing we do. It mostly pays attention to trigger/action combinations that provide you with some gratification, the reward. For example, every day when you get off the bed (trigger), you brush your teeth (action) and then enjoy feeling fresh and morning breath-less.

Using Habits to Overcome Emotional Eating

Here’s the catch: your brain can’t tell the difference between bad habits and good habits. It’s only concerned about the reward, which goes to show that your bad habits exist because they’re doing you some service short-term. Here’s another example that is perhaps more familiar: you’re feeling nervous before a big meeting (trigger), you reach out for a package of cookies (action) then you feel distracted from your anxiety (reward).

I’m not suggesting that it’s bad to eat cookies. But you do want to be aware of the moments you use food as a way to cope with your feelings. In your journey to make peace with food, you have to give your feelings space and recognition they deserve. Avoiding your feelings won’t make them go away. The first step in handling your feelings is acknowledging their existence. Understanding your habits gives you a tool to do just that.

The best way to change an undesirable habit is to change the action while keeping the trigger and the reward mostly the same. Again, the unwanted habit here is not eating cookies but failing to cope with your emotions. Once you’re aware of the different ways the trigger-action-reward triad shows in your Emotional Eating habits, you’ll be able to introduce better strategies to deal with your feelings.

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Using Habits to Overcome Diet Mentality

I know a lot of women who are not officially dieting but still hold on to dieting thoughts. I know, because I did the same for a long time before I finally let go of those thoughts for good. It turns out that diet mentality is as much of a habit as brushing your teeth or meditating in the morning. That stuff is so ingrained in our brains and identity that we engage in dieting thoughts without even noticing.

As I mentioned earlier, the brain doesn’t see the long-term consequences of your habits. When it comes to diet mentality, it feeds on the misguided idea that you’re somehow a better woman for not enjoying your friend’s birthday cake or for killing yourself on the treadmill. That’s the reward society promises us and that the brain learns to accept.

You can use your newly-acquired habit knowledge to let your brain know better. The triggers for diet mentality, even if you’re not on a diet, are many. It’s choosing a meal from a menu. It’s deciding if you should go to the gym after a pretty draining day or not. It’s receiving an invitation to a party or a picnic.

Pay attention to the situations that trigger your dieting thoughts and choose a different action than equating your worth to food choices. Make an effort to recognize the rewards you’re missing out on by living under the spell of the diet mentality. Those can be special moments with friends and family, the opportunity for a cozy night in after a long day, or just enjoying the flavors in a tasty homemade pie.

Let your brain get a taste of those rewards.

What now?

I hope you’re now curious about how habits can support your journey to leave the diet wagon for good. Let’s try and put this into practice:

What are some of the feelings you’re overriding with your eating habits? What are some of the diet mentality triggers you experience on a day-to-day basis? Let us know in the comments, and we can brainstorm some ideas to tweak your habits together.

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