Achieving a healthy and balanced lifestyle is one of the biggest reasons why you may want to change and optimise your eating habits, after all, our habits are the components that make up our lifestyle. But, why is it so hard to be “healthy”? To stop the “bad” habits and make the “good” ones stick? I unpack 3 key reasons why this is happening and how you can address each one to start practicing healthier but more importantly maintainable eating habits.
TREATING IT LIKE A DIET
The word is acceptance. Acceptance that the path you wish to walk is a lifestyle, a way of living that you can sustain for a very long time. Not just days or weeks, but years and decades. Treating it like a diet suggests there is an end-point, where the problem has been solved or the goal has been achieved and the diet has been successfully completed. The truth is, healthy habits never stop, and you never perfect them either - they transform and adapt with our lives.
The other part of acceptance to unpack is with the end goal, the why. A healthy and balanced dietary lifestyle, perhaps is a way of eating that nourishes your physical body for optimal health, yes. But it’s so much more than this. It’s to have a healthy relationship with food, to enjoy the pleasures, emotions, social experiences and memories that food can bring. It’s also to help your body become stronger and fitter to carry you into old age. It’s to protect you from chronic diseases, and prolong your life. It’s all of these and more, but for many people it’s also for fat loss, muscle gain, getting a toned physique - for a physical appearance. Although being at a healthy weight is important for health, my point here is, it’s not everything. And to truly adopt a healthy and balanced lifestyle, your desire would need to align with this purpose.
When you are on a diet mindset, the diet train, there is an agreement made with yourself that it is ok to make highly disruptive sacrifices, because it’s not forever. You make a mental handshake with yourself, that if you make these sacrifices and stick with them to the T, you will be rewarded with the dream outcome, and all the sacrifices will be worth-while. Basically, you sign up to a contract that was made to trip you up, it was intentionally flawed.
By stepping off the diet train, and back onto your own track you can start to design and architect a way of eating that works for you. With the acceptance that this is genuinely a lifestyle, the shift in mindset takes the pressure off to change a thousand habits in one go. The shift in mindset should lead you to seek a different way of being healthy, and this leads me onto the second key reason.
CHOOSING THE WRONG HABITS
The word here is personalisation. Everyone's life is unique. Unique in the sense that if you take one person’s life and you break down every single habit they have on a given day, it is impossible another person would have an identical set of habits. Still not convinced? Think about from the moment you wake up, your morning routine from using the bathroom, getting kids ready, making breakfast, to your commute to work, your work routines, lunch routines, your commute home, fitting in some exercise, to making dinner, putting kids to bed etc… Although you may think the same applies to millions of other people, the difference is in the details. Your natural wake up time might be 7am vs 5am for someone else, it takes you 1.5 hours to get to work vs 5 minutes, you do your grocery shopping on the weekend vs several times a week at the local store on the way home from work. And throw a family and children into the mix, or perhaps if you run your own business or you travel a lot for work. And you start seeing the uniqueness of your own lives, and how nobody else can tell you what type of habits are best for you.
So, how do you find the right habits? Well, let’s start with quickly defining what you want to do. You are looking to identify eating habits in your life that generate a positive impact on your health. For example, by eating one extra piece of fruit per day, you know it is providing your body with additional nutrients it did not receive before. It’s a positive habit. Almost there, a habit is much more specific than that. Let’s try this example, after you finish dinner each evening you pack your work bag and put an apple inside the side pocket, the next morning when you get on your train commuting to work, you eat the apple and take a sip of water. You repeat this behaviour 5 times per week. You have repeated this behaviour so many times that you now do it without thinking.
Here are the steps to finding the right habits that fit into your lifestyle:
Identify a list of potential eating habits that you believe will have a positive impact. Pick one that you believe will have the greatest impact first.
Break down your daily lifestyle into 1 hour blocks and write down everything you do that is a repeated behaviour.
See where you can carry out your selected habit realistically and more importantly, be specific about the plan - include an exact time and location
Test out the habit, whilst taking notes of what’s working / not working. Be sure to give yourself enough time during this stage.
Review and adapt the habit as required.
Repeat by adding new habits whilst retaining the previous, the key is consistency, keep trying and keep repeating the behaviour until it suits your lifestyle the best.
MAKING IT TOO HARD
Can you guess what the word is? The word is easy. Too often we strive to achieve the perfect version of a habit, but we inadvertently make it too hard to maintain or to become a genuine habit in the first place. When dieting, many rely on sheer willpower, or self-control, but this is a limited and unreliable resource because humans suffer from ego depletion. This is where you have the most willpower in the morning, but this depletes as frictions throughout the day empty the willpower reservoir. By the end of the day, or the end of the week, willpower and self-control will be drained. Also, willpower goes straight out of the window when we are stressed, anxious or emotional, our brains freak out and revert to old-habits.
A more reliable way of ensuring you show up every time is making it as easy as possible, setting yourself up for success and simplifying the overall habit. Going back to the apple a day example, the trick there was putting the apple in the bag the night before rather than relying on remembering in the morning when you may be more distracted. You can do the same with your lunch. An example of simplifying is rather than striving to eat home cooked meals for every meal every day, you can start with one a day. Or trying to eat fruit and vegetables at every meal and every snack time when you currently barely have one, you can start with one piece of fruit and incorporate one vegetable in a main meal.
The key to creating a habit that sticks, and making it a real habit is ensuring you repeat the behaviour again and again, over a period of time. The challenge is therefore making sure you show up over and over again. So, the easier you make it to show up, the more often you will carry out the behaviour, even if it's not the perfect version of the habit, you are slowly embedding new neural pathways in the brain.
3 THINGS YOU CAN DO:
Shift away from a diet mentality and truly accept that this is a lifestyle and the whole benefits package it comes with, it’s not just about achieving a certain physical appearance, but everything that eating a nutritionally balanced diet can give you. This will free you from the mental constraints and pitfalls of dieting.
Personalise the habits you wish to create, find out what works for you and your unique lifestyle. The only way to know is to try them one by one, slowly and take note of what works or what does not work so you can be in control of how you can improve on them.
Make them as easy as possible for you to show up to each habit, lower the hurdle so it’s a simple step over, until you can repeat it over and over, only then start bringing the hurdle up.