Creating a habit starts with a baby step in the wrong direction. Breaking these bad habits can take a little more effort.
As a dietitian, I often feel like I'm hearing confession from clients who speak of their “weaknesses” and the “wicked” foods that tempt them, from chocolate to chips to cheese. The simple solution is to remember the maxim, “everything in moderation”. But how do you put that into practice when a habit has formed?
When it comes to combating your temptations, there are tricks that can enable you to keep enjoying your food without gorging a week's worth of treats in one sitting. For specific food habits, there's usually a specific solution that can help reduce your reliance.
If you're eating sweets as everyday foods rather than celebration foods, you may have a hard time weaning yourself. Eating any amount of sweet food (from sugar or alternatives) increases your desire for it, and if you've switched to artificially sweetened foods in an effort to lose weight, it could actually have the opposite effect. Satisfying your sugar craving can make you hungrier, and make you crave it even more.
Tip: Avoid eating sweet food early in the day as this is likely to set you on the wrong path.
If chocolate is your particular vice, there's no point feeling guilty. A recent study from New Zealand found that those who associated eating chocolate cake with celebration were more successful in reaching their weight loss goals than those who associated it with guilt. If you have a treat planned, you're less likely to overeat because you're feeling emotional, through convenience or boredom.
Tips: Always buy single-serving chocolate bars. You can't eat half a block when you only have a single serving in the house.
A want for chocolate disguised as a need may in fact be a need to eat a more protein-rich breakfast. Swap your usual cereal and toast for vegie eggs (an omelet or scrambled eggs with vegetables like mushrooms, onion, capsicum and zucchini) or cottage cheese, baby spinach and smoked salmon on a multigrain English muffin.
Sure, most people find cheese and bacon delicious. However, they've both become condiments added to flavour dishes rather than being treated as ingredients in their own right. We tend to use them almost as an insurance policy against a bad meal.
Cheese can be part of a healthy diet, but when it is used with other high fat ingredients it just adds kilojoules and re-flavours the food rather than enhancing the original ingredients.
Tip: A slice of cheese can adds between 400-500 kilojoules to a meal or snack; two slices gives us the energy equivalent of a medium chocolate bar.
I am often intrigued by the amount of supermarket real estate devoted to large bottles of soft drink. While a two-litre bottle may be the same price as a 375ml can, you're more likely to drink or eat the first thing you see in the fridge, so as with chocolate only ever buy single serves. Also if you've got some milk-a-holics in your household, put the milk in the fridge on a shelf rather than in the door, and keep the door free for storing water or sparkling water.
Tip: Wean yourself from sweet drinks with sparkling water with a little lemon or lime added. You will soon find soft drinks too sweet for your liking.
When you have a mid-afternoon craving for sweet or salty food it's easy to convince yourself "my body must need it" and to eat food you hadn't planned to. Salty food in particular can be moreish - it's easy to stop at 15 raw almonds, but when they're toasted and salted, that second handful goes down very easily.
Tip: Use flavours of foods enhanced by herbs, spices or aromatic vegetables while you're trying to reduce salt. Keep small portions of chips and nuts in individual serves. Mix salted nuts with raw nuts to reduce overall salt, and swap salted snacks out slowly. It is easy to eat a meal worth of kilojoules in a snack when it is salty like chips or cheese and crackers.
There are health benefits associated with drinking coffee. Between two and four cups per day has been shown to reduce the risk of some chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The benefits are less apparent when you add syrups, sugar, chocolate or enjoy milky coffees. Lattes, flat whites and cappuccinos are more like snacks than drinks, and can add a huge number of unwanted kilojoules that don't fill you up. Two regular lattes per day above nutritional requirements will take the average person an hour of walking to burn off.
Also, too much caffeine can cause an increase in stress responses and sleeplessness. It may make you feel better at the time, but for a long-term improvement on your energy, replace some of the caffeine-induced energy with whole food energy at breakfast, lunch and dinner, for example, by eating at least two serves of vegetables a day.
Tips: Treat milky coffees as a stand-alone snack, rather than a drink. If you're drinking more than four cups per day, try herbal tea alternatives. Peppermint tea is a great pick-me-up for the afternoon. Beware of teas that have a lot of sugar added - usually fruit-flavoured teas.
Give yourself a goal for number of coffees per day, order the smallest size and gradually reduce the sugar you add. This will allow you to enjoy a few cups per day guilt-free and savour the true quality coffee taste.
Tips for fighting bad food habits
- Plan when you'll eat your favourite treat, in small amounts and preferably away from home.
- Keep a barrier between you and the danger food. For example, keep in drawers rather than on desks or in the fridge rather than in the door.
- If you buy food in bulk, separate it into individual serves in reusable small containers.
- Don't use fatty foods as condiments
Have you kicked a bad food habit? Share your tips in the comments below.