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Wellness Wise

6 Steps to Fix Bad Eating Habits

How to overcome unhealthy habits that are keeping you from losing weight and getting fit.
By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Most of us are creatures of habit. We buy the same foods from the same grocery store, prepare the same recipes over and over, and live within our own familiar routines. But if you're serious about eating healthier and losing weight, you need to shake it up, change those bad eating habits, and start thinking differently about your diet and lifestyle. 

The problem is that we get so comfortable in our ways that it's hard to give up those old habits.

"Many people are skeptical about changing their diets because they have grown accustomed to eating or drinking the same foods, and there is a fear of the unknown or trying something new," says John Foreyt, PhD, director of the Baylor College of Medicine Behavioral Medicine Research Center.

Even when you want to change, old habits die hard.

"Over time, habits become automatic, learned behaviors, and these are stronger than new habits you are trying to incorporate into your life," says Foreyt.

Even those who manage to change their bad eating habits can easily fall back on their old ways during times of stress. When you're feeling weak or vulnerable, automatic responses often override good intentions.

"Everything can be going along just fine until you hit a rough patch and feelings of boredom, loneliness, depression, or ... any kind of stress," says Foreyt.

Foreyt says tackling bad eating and exercise habits requires a three-pronged approach:

Another expert notes that you're much more likely to be successful at changing your habits if you take things one step at a time. "Try to gradually incorporate new habits over time, and before you know it, you will be eating more healthfully and losing weight," says Keri Gans, MS, RD, American Dietetic Association spokesperson and a nutritionist in private practice in New York.

Eating a healthier diet may be intimidating at first. But once you see for yourself how good it makes you feel -- and how good healthy food can taste -- you have a better chance of succeeding. Over time, your preferences will change and cravings for bad-for-you foods will fade away.

Here are 6 steps to help you get rid of your old, unhealthy habits and create healthier ones:

1. Take Baby Steps. Making small changes in your diet and lifestyle can improve your health as well as trim your waistline. Some suggestions from the experts:

2.  Become More Mindful. One of the first steps toward conquering bad eating habits is paying more attention to what you're eating and drinking. "Read food labels, become familiar with lists of ingredients, and start to take notice of everything you put into your mouth," says Gans. Once you become more aware of what you're eating, you'll start to realize how you need to improve your diet. Some people benefit by keeping food diaries.

3.  Make a Plan; Be Specific. How are you going to start eating more fruit, having breakfast every day, or getting to the gym more often?  Spell out your options. For example: Plan to take a piece of fruit to work every day for snacks, stock up on cereal and fruit for quick breakfasts, and go to the gym on the way to work three times a week. "To say 'I am going to work out more,' won't help you," says Gans. "What will help is thinking about when and how you can fit it into your lifestyle."

4. Tackle a New Mini-Goal Each Week. These mini-steps will eventually add up to major change. For example, if your goal is to eat more vegetables, tell yourself you'll try one new veggie each week until you find some you really enjoy. Or look for easy ways to add one more serving of vegetables to your diet each week until you reach your goal. Try topping your lunch sandwich with slices of cucumbers; adding shredded carrots to the muffins you have for breakfast; or topping your dinnertime pizza with sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms.

5.  Be Realistic.  Don't expect too much from yourself too soon. It takes about a month for any new action to become habit. Slow and steady wins the race -- along with a dose of vigilance.

6.  Practice Stress Management. "Focus on dealing with stress through exercise, relaxation, meditation, or whatever works for you, so you don't fall back into those bad habits during periods of stress or use food to help you cope with the situation," advises Foreyt.

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This information is provided by The University of Texas System, Office of Employee Benefits and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.

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