How to Drop Pound-Packing Habits

Are you sabotaging your weight loss program with eating habits you don't even know you have? Three experts tell WebMD how to spot those hefty habits - and change them!

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 12, 2008
7 min read

Dieting your butt off, but still not able to lose all the pounds? It could be you're eating more than you realize!

How is that possible, you say? Experts report it's easier than you think, thanks to our "hefty habits" -- unconscious pairings of food with activities that sometimes cause us to eat more than we realize.

"Too often we eat on 'auto pilot' -- we associate food with certain activities or even times of the day, and without really paying attention to how much we're consuming, we overeat, " says Warren Huberman, PhD, a psychologist with the NYU medical program for surgical weight loss.

Whether it's subconsciously crunching chips while surfing the Net, grabbing that 20-ounce bottle of soda every time the phone rings, or sometimes, just automatically pairing two foods together -- like reaching for a chocolate doughnut every time you smell your morning coffee -- experts say old habits die hard, even when we're on a diet.

"Your brain stores things in a way that makes life easy for you, so if you do things in a certain manner a number of times your brain says, 'OK this is how we do things'; when those habits include food, overeating can become a simple matter of unconscious association," says Huberman.

Weight control psychologist Abby Aronowitz, PhD agrees: "If a response to a stimulus is rewarded continually, that response quickly becomes connected to the stimulus. So if you always reward the thought of having a cup of coffee with reaching for a doughnut, than those two thoughts become connected in your mind," says Aronowitz, author of Your Final Diet.

But it's not just associations that are set in our brain. It's also cravings. Huberman tells WebMD that if, for example, we have that coffee and doughnut together enough times, not only are we conditioned to reach for those two items together, our brain actually sets up a craving system to ensure that's what we do.

"This means if you have coffee and a doughnut every morning for 90 straight mornings, on the 91st morning when you pour that cup of coffee, you are going to be craving a doughnut because those two foods are linked in your brain," says Huberman.

Cravings, he says, are not random, but rather learned. "You never crave foods you have not tasted. You have to learn certain things in order for your brain to crave it, and when you repeat something enough times the craving becomes part of your brain's repertoire," he says.

Because the first step to breaking any habit is a desire to break it, motivational psychologist Paul P. Baard, PhD, says it's important to understand why you want to change.

"The building platform is always motivation -- and in order to make it work, the motivation must be intrinsic. The change has to represent benefits you want," says Baard, an associate professor at Fordham University in New York City.

If you're simply trying to please a spouse, a parent, or even your doctor, Baard says success will be harder to achieve.

Once you're clear on your motivations, experts say the next step is to identify where your hefty habits really lie.

"Do you always plop down on the same spot on the couch, with the same television show on and the same bowl of chips in your hand?" asks Huberman. If so, he says it's a good bet you will eat all the chips, even if you didn't plan on doing so.

"Behavioral eating really is a lot like links in a chain; when you continually find yourself in a situation that is conducive to eating, or conducive to eating a particular food, and you follow through by eating that food, you reinforce a chain link of behaviors that is very much like being on autopilot, says Huberman.

To begin to change that behavior, he says, break just one link in the chain.

"Change the time you eat, the TV show you are watching, the bowl you put the chips in - eat with your left hand instead of your right hand. The point is to make your brain work a little so that every bite you take is a conscious decision and not a learned, automatic behavior," says Huberman.

What can also help: Keeping a food diary, and then studying it to see how you may be associating certain foods not so much with hunger, but with activities, events, or even times of the day.

"A lot of people eat by external cues. They see a clock and they eat, they hear a theme song come on the TV and they eat, a lot of eating is based on associations and not really hunger," says Huberman.

While changing environmental cues is one approach, another is to keep the habit but try to make it healthier.

"As a strategy it's known as behavioral intervention. You substitute something that is good for you and that you like for something that is not so good for you, but you also like," says Aronowitz.

So if, for example, you always have a glass of milk and chocolate chip cookies before going to bed, when bedtime rolls around keep the milk, the glass, the cookie plate, and the place where you normally have the snack all the same -- but substitute a chocolate graham cracker for the high-fat, high-calorie cookie.

"In this way you won't be putting too much strain on your brain. Your habit will be similar, so it's easy to accept, yet different enough to take you out of autopilot and have an impact on your weight loss," says Huberman.

Once that happens, Baard says environmental influences will kick in to help form a new habit. "It's going to take some discipline, but if you can just make that one initial break in your habit, those environmental changes will begin reinforcing a new behavior in your brain," he says.

That said, Huber also reminds us that we have to be willing to tolerate a little bit of discomfort every time a habit is changed.

"It doesn't have to be pain, you don't have to be miserable, but you do have to stretch out your comfort zone and recognize that you are going to feel out of sorts until the new behavior pattern is created," says Huberman.

Baard tells WebMD you make the whole process easier if you find a sense of satisfaction in breaking your food habit.

"You want to feel good about yourself, you want to know that food is not telling you what to do, that you can do with food whatever you choose," says Baard. This, he says, is calming to the brain and can help balance the discomfort you feel from veering from the familiar to new, uncharted territories.

While changing the way we think -- and the associations we make -- may seem hard, changing our actual behavior may be easier than we think. To help you get started, here are six things you can do right now to put change in motion.

  1. Eat anything you want -- but always do it sitting at the kitchen or dining room table. "Changing not the foods you eat, but where you eat them, will help break some of the association with that food, which in turn may help alter how much and how often you eat it," says Huberman.

  2. Change anything about your food habit you can, including the way you eat it. "If you always hold the ice cream spoon in your right hand, hold it in your left; if you always eat out of the container, put it in a bowl. The idea here is to take yourself off autopilot so you begin to think about what you are eating and why you are eating it," says Huberman.

  3. Avoid visual cues that tell you to eat. 'If you always think of eating a candy bar every time you pass the vending machine, consciously go out of your way not to pass the vending machine," says Aronowitz. The same is true if TV is your food trigger. "Make a point not to eat in front of the television -- or change the channel away from the show you always associate with that pizza or bowl of chips," she says.

  4. Institute the '15 minute' rule. As soon as you get a "cue" to eat, train yourself to wait just 15 minutes before you do. Aronowitz says this will help break the automatic response cycle in your brain that, ultimately, helps cancel out the old associations.

  5. Don't try to break all your nasty food habits at once. "If you do, your level of discomfort will grow so high that your brain will immediately regress to that state which is most comfortable," says Baard. At the same time, working on just one or two food habits will allow your brain enough of a comfort zone to allow you to cope with, and eventually learn, the new behavior.

  6. Make eating a sole focus activity and give it your full concentration. "Put down the BlackBerry, step away from the computer, get off the telephone, and just concentrate on eating," says Huberman. The more you disassociate food with other activities, the more likely you are to not allow outside cues to dictate where and when and how much you eat.