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A Nutritionist Explains: How to Form Healthy Habits that Last

 

Let me outline a typical situation for you that the majority of you will recognise.

Something sparks a desire to eat more healthily. Maybe you got on the scales and didn’t like what you saw or maybe you had a particularly indulgent weekend or maybe you have made a new year’s resolution to get healthier.

Full of motivation, you decide there and then to go on a diet, cut out carbs, cut out chocolate, go alcohol free and start eating kale.

The only problem is that after a while you find that you don’t have time, you’re too tired, it’s expensive or you’re busy at work so bit by bit you stop doing all those things until you’re back where you started.

Sound familiar?

This scenario highlights the most common mistakes we all make when trying to improve our diet and health:

  1. We take on way too much at once, thinking that what we need is a strict and rigid diet plan or a list of “good” or “bad” foods, (which – spoiler alert – doesn’t actually exist!)
  2. And we think that we can carry ourselves through on our newly found burst of motivation.

But if we’re actually going to be successful we have to do things a little differently…

The role of will power

“Design your life to minimise reliance on willpower”

Willpower is a fantastic way to start a new routine but a truly TERRIBLE way to maintain it.

When motivation is really high, it doesn’t matter if things are difficult to do because we’re so motivated that we do them anyway. BUT motivation changes over time and it is a finite resource which we can use up.

When motivation dips but the task remains difficult, we slip from the area above the line on the chart of succeeding to the area below where we fail. This is why diets nearly always fail – the truth is that diets aren’t designed to work and the diet industry relies on us to keep coming back.

To maximise our chances of success we therefore need to reduce the amount we depend on our willpower and instead focus on making new behaviours as easy as possible to do.

Forming bulletproof habits

“For a habit to succeed, it must be unfailingly simple”

When it comes to making behaviours easier to do, there are 5 key constraints we must consider:

  1. Time
  2. Money
  3. Physical effort
  4. Mental effort
  5. Routine

If any link in that chain is broken at that moment in time then it will prevent us from performing the desired behaviour.

Let’s take a practical example:

You decide you would like to lose weight. First we will need to break this big, difficult goal down into smaller, practical steps and then tackle these each in turn. A practical first step towards your weight loss goal may be replacing your current Tesco meal deal lunch with something nutritious and homemade. Sounds good but who’s got time for that right? Well, let’s see if we can make this more practical by addressing the 5 areas we discussed:

  1. Time – we could buy ready prepared whole ingredients like microwaveable grains, salad leaves and chicken breast strips (obviously the exact ingredients will depend on your tastes). Now all we have to do is assemble the ingredients rather than cook them from scratch.
  2. Money – in this example, we’re actually likely to save money – particularly if we buy in bulk.
  3. Physical effort – we can add these new ingredients to our favourites within our online shop so we never have to repeat the process.
  4. Mental effort – we can start off by using the same ingredients each time so we don’t have to think about it and then add in other ingredients over time as we wish.
  5. Routine – so that we always remember to do it, we can tie making lunch into an existing behaviour – perhaps we could assemble lunch every morning whilst we wait for the kettle to boil.

By breaking our goal down, starting small and making the new behaviour easy to do we can get into the routine of eating a healthy lunch every day.

Over time, as we start to lose weight and have more energy throughout the day, our motivation will increase and we’ll want to try new healthy recipes and take a look at how we can make our other meals healthier.

The key though is that we started small and built on our success.

Identifying trustworthy information

Knowing what advice to follow is a huge challenge. When it comes to our diet, we are constantly bombarded with advice: by the media, advertising, gym instructors and even by friends and family. And there’s a big cost to following incorrect advice as it leads to wasted efforts.

So how do you know what advice to pay attention to and what to ignore?

Always check the source – is the information coming from a registered health professional like a registered nutritionist or academic? As nutritionists we are required to provide evidence-based advice that’s scientifically supported. If it isn’t then treat it with real caution.

N.B. Even personal trainers personal trainers “should not provide prescriptive nutritional advice or develop bespoke individualised nutrition plans for clients” according to the leading personal trainer insurer (Insure 4 Sport).

It’s also important to note that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else. The best way to figure out what works for you is under the guidance of a professional who can help you safely conduct controlled tests  to help isolate what specifically works for you.

Being accountable

Finally, accountability is SO important when it comes to successfully adopting new habits and we are more likely to succeed when we are accountable and have support.

Shameless plug – this is something that Odhealth is perfect for! But you can also set up your own support system. Simple tricks like writing your intention down or telling someone else of your plan can have a huge impact.

The British Journal of Health Psychology found that 91% of people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through- the other group was only 38%.

Eliminating the wagon

“If you forgot or couldn’t be bothered to brush your teeth one evening you wouldn’t give up on brushing your teeth ever again.”

A common phenomenon when it comes to health and fitness is the “all or nothing” approach. We go all in but when we “fall off the wagon” we tend to fall hard.

I like the analogy of brushing your teeth here: “if you forgot or couldn’t be bothered to brush your teeth one evening you wouldn’t give up on brushing your teeth ever again”.

We need to adopt the same mentality when it comes to our nutrition.  Using the earlier example – if we don’t manage to bring a homemade lunch in one day – that’s ok! We’ll just bring one in tomorrow. We mustn’t beat ourselves up over it.  If we can’t ever manage to bring lunch in then that’s also ok – we just need to learn from that and tweak the plan to something else we can stick to.

The key take outs

  1. Design your life to minimise reliance on willpower
  2. Create tiny habits and build on your success
  3. Identifying trustworthy information
  4. Create accountability
  5. Eliminate the wagon

References:

https://behaviormodel.org/ability/

https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/20448287

https://www.insure4sport.co.uk/blog/should-personal-trainers-give-nutritional-advice/

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