Good intentions, determination, and willpower are skills people think they need when trying to make healthy lifestyle changes. The reality is much more complex. Decisions are influenced by the environment, the choices that are presented, as well as your own lifelong habits and subconscious responses – none of which involve willpower.
The average person makes hundreds of decisions daily. And, over 200 of those decisions are about food. You have learned to make automatic decisions when faced with familiar situations or environments. These automatic decisions, or habits, form associations in your memory. Similar environments and situations will activate your habitual responses. When faced with a new situation, you are forced to think and make conscious decisions rather than rely on habit or making mindless decisions.
Since habits are well-practiced responses that are cued by the environment, changing the environment will force you to think more consciously about your decision. For example, if you usually eat fast food in the car, passing a fast food restaurant may trigger you to drive up to the window without even thinking. However, if you change your route so you don’t drive past a fast food restaurant, that response (habit) will not be triggered.
Controlling the environment:
Here are some ideas to help change the environment that triggers less-healthy decision-making.
• Shop for food with a list, skip the candy and chip aisles – if you don’t buy it, it won’t be in the house to tempt you.
• Sit down for meals, take time to prepare a plate for meals or put snacks in a small bowl to help with portion size.
• Practice eating slowly to enjoy your food – when eating with others, sit next to the slowest eater.
• Eat less-healthy foods you love, but in smaller portions as a once-in- a-while treat rather than every day.
• Fill half your plate with vegetables. Try fruits and vegetables as snacks.
• If you eat at a restaurant, try to have only two items such as entrée plus a drink, or an appetizer plus an entrée. Try to avoid having an appetizer, plus a drink, plus an entrée, plus dessert. Or, try having an appetizer for your meal.
Having an intention for a goal, such as “I want to exercise more’ isn’t enough to guide the behavior that you want. You also need to have some ideas for implementing your goal.
If you develop a strategy you intend to implement BEFORE you encounter a trigger, you are more likely to be successful. This is called if-then planning.
• IF I go to a restaurant, THEN I will order a salad.
• IF I’m traveling in the car, THEN I will take water and healthy snacks.
Reviewed in 2019