When you think about your eating pattern in a typical day, how often do you eat because you are hungry, and how often out of habit? Although the primary purpose for eating is to provide fuel for our bodies to function and grow, there are many different reasons for why we eat, what we eat and when we eat it. Such as through boredom, to cheer ourselves up, in social situations and through habit. Our eating habits develop over our lifetime and it is really easy to pick up habits that cause us to over eat without being conscious of it. One of the key ways to improve your diet is identifying and changing your bad habits.
Having the occasional treat (and by that I mean once a week, once a month or less), is fine as part of a balanced diet, because you are likely to subconsciously adjust the amount of food you eat to account for the occasional over indulgence and eat less at the next meal. However regular habits, such as: always having sugar in your tea/coffee; a mid-morning pastry; a can of fizzy drink or packet of crisps with lunch or something sweet at the end of a meal, can become set in stone and difficult to break, resulting in regularly consuming more calories than you need.
Some habits are harder to shift than others, but sugar in your tea/coffee has to be one of the easiest to change. Evidence from work to reduce the salt and sugar content of processed foods suggests that if you gradually reduce the amount of salt and sugar you consume in a particular food it is likely that you will become accustomed to the lower salt/sweet taste over time. If for example you have two teaspoons of sugar in each cup of tea/coffee and drink four cups a day, you are consuming eight teaspoons, over 30g, of sugar and an extra 120kcal per day. If you are looking to cut down and save on calories consumed, try reducing the amount of sugar you add to each cup by a tiny amount at a time, such as a third of a teaspoon every two weeks. Hopefully by 12 weeks you’ll be used to the taste of very little sugar in your tea/coffee and wondering how you could ever stand it so sweet.
It typically takes at least 12 weeks to change a habit, although this can vary hugely by individual and the habit you are trying to change. It also seems to be easier to start doing something new, than to stop doing something. If, for example, you want to stop having that mid-morning pastry, tell yourself you are going to start making a positive change, like start having a healthier, more substantial breakfast, then hopefully you won’t be hungry by mid-morning and won’t be thinking about that pastry. Or plan to have something more exciting (not less healthy!) than usual for lunch so you can keep going until lunchtime without being tempted by that pastry. Another useful trick to try is to get in the habit of drinking water when you feel hungry. Often we think we are hungry when we are just thirsty. This also helps if you are just bored, especially at work if you need to walk to the tea point to get more water.
If like me, you have got into a routine of always having something sweet after a meal, try stocking up on delicious fruit to have instead of dessert. It will not only satisfy those sweet cravings, but also provide you with one or two of your 5 A Day. (Although I have to admit I now have a bit of an obsession with Medjool dates, my chocolate substitute!) Whatever it is you’re changing, stick to it and hopefully by the end of 12 weeks you won’t even have noticed the change.