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Improve Your Health: Kick Ineffective Habits to The Curb

Key points:

  • Environmental cues trigger powerful responses

  • It’s hard to break old habits without adapting your environment

  • Identify triggers and responses, and strategize to overcome them

“There are no good habits or bad habits. There are only effective habits. That is, effective at solving problems. All habits serve you in some way--even the bad ones--which is why you repeat them.” --James Clear, Atomic Habits

Does this sound familiar? You’ve been working hard to change your exercise and nutrition habits. You open the pantry door to grab a handful of nuts, but you see your kids’ Chips Ahoy cookies, and, well...Before you know it, you’re reaching in the Chips Ahoy package. The delightfully crunchy, chocolatey cookie hits some sort of blissful sweet spot and leaves you aching for more. So you grab another. Before you know it, an entire row is gone. If you’re like me, one of two things might happen next: You either a) throw in the towel and gobble down as many as possible so you’re not tempted by the whole package tomorrow, or b) throw them in the trash because they’re evil. Sadly, I’ve done both on more than one occasion and with more than one food. I don’t think I’m alone. For many years, my relationship with food was fraught with guilt and feelings of weakness.

While I eventually learned to live with various treats in the house (I can enjoy them every now and again without going overboard), I didn’t start out that way. If you follow me on FaceBook or Instagram, you know I don’t believe that any food should be completely off limits. I truly believe all food is acceptable to eat; just not all of the time. But this doesn’t mean you have to keep a tempting food in your home. The best way to kick a less-than-healthy habit to the curb is to change your environment.

Food companies are specialists in making hyperpalatable food--food that tastes so good, you can’t help but go back for more. They’ve figured out the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat to make you weak in the knees. Knowing this, I think hard about our family’s food environment. Foods that are hyperpalatable to me or members of my family either don’t come through the door (except once in a blue moon), or get arranged in our pantry in such a way that they’re not easily accessible. Foods that are healthier snacking choices are front and center on the pantry shelves, easy for both me and my children to reach. Fruit is stored in aesthetically appealing ways on the kitchen counter. Candies, cookies, and other treats are stored on shelves above everyone’s eye level. We put them in containers that make us expend more energy to get to them. Sometimes I place them in cabinets that are far away from our pantry. Similar strategies are used in our fridge and freezer.

Packing healthy snack options in your bag, taking different routes, and finding a distraction (for instance, call a friend as you walk by the cookie store at the mall) are all valid strategies for changing environmental cues. I’ve even heard of people shopping at a different grocery store to avoid familiarity cues that prompt junk food buys.

Challenge yourself today! Write down one environmental trigger. Is it food? Is it a place? Is it an association? Identify one or two things that you can do to adapt that trigger. Can you eliminate the trigger? If not, can you adjust your response? Meaningful changes in your environment often only require small actions.

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