Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Habits

Giving up sugar, grains and other processed food for 8 weeks is not easy for anyone.  We partake in many things daily that become habits. How many times have you checked Facebook today? While these daily habits are part of our routine, they may not always be the best for our well-being or productivity.  BUT breaking a habit is HARD.  Even when we know something is bad for us, our desire for normalcy and reward are so much stronger then the desire to break a habit.

For as long as I can remember, I had a bowl of cereal for breakfast. This started when I was young and my mom and I would sit down for breakfast, each with a bowl of cereal and watch the Today show before she went to work and I went to school. During college, I undoubtedly had cereal for breakfast because it was cheap and fast and I probably had it for lunch and dinner sometimes as well. Going into adulthood,  I graduated to more "healthy" cereals and would throw bananas or blueberries in them to get some additional nutrients. Of course, when the mood would strike me, I would buy a big box of Captain Crunch (opps all berries!) and pop in a good movie, get in my PJs and eat the entire box! Yes, an entire box of Captain Crunch that would eventually leave the roof of my mouth numb and my stomach aching. But for me, cereal was comfort food and was a part of every morning of my life for as long as I can remember.
So when looking at my diet and taking on this nutritional challenge, I knew the cereal had to go.  Even the healthy cereal that I was eating each morning was filled with sugar and gluten and drowning in a couple cups of milk that became a sugary drink at the end of each bowl.

While cereal is good and easy for me, giving it up was more about giving up a habit. I had to rethink the way I approached breakfast. Everything about my mornings triggered my desire to pour a bowl of cereal.   In the book The Power of Habit  by Charles Duhigg, habits are learned behaviors performed automatically. Once a habit is formed, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making leading to automatically unfolding patterns.

Duhigg reports that there is a simple three-part look at the core of every habit: the cure, the routine, and the reward.

So for my cereal habit, it was:
  • the cue: waking up....just the act of getting out of bed triggered my need/want for cereal
  • the routine: every morning was the same- walk the dog, shower, cereal while reading the news, leave for work
  • the reward: nothing tastes better then cold milk on slightly sweetened cereal with a banana thrown in.
So when taking on this nutrition challenge, I knew giving up cereal would be hard and that I would have to focus on each of these components.  Not only did I have to set myself up for success (ie. having food that I could quickly prepare for breakfast), but I had to increase my awareness of what cues that would trigger a desire or craving for cereal or something sweet.

What has worked for me is to change the cues and routines. The simple act of changing the order in which I do things in has helped. I don't eat after I have showered and gotten ready, rather I eat first and then get ready for my day.  I have added in hot tea in the morning and find a different route each morning to walk my dog.  I am amazed at how these small changes have helped me focus on what my goals are for the day and have empowered me to stay away from cereal.  Of course, the biggest factor has been to not have cereal or milk within reach. Out of sight, out of mind! (easier said then done...lots of grocery stores along the way to work)

I have found this not to just be applicable to just my morning habits, but also to other things that may trigger an urge to indulge in something not so healthy.  This new sense of awareness of cues have helped me to  easily identify what is triggering me and I can remove myself or distract myself from the situation. One of my biggest cues for wanting to dive into a box of cookies is stress. When I am stressed, all I want is baked goods. I will take any baked goods....high quality or not. So recognizing this, I have become aware of these cues and when I become stressed and am about to run to the nearest bakery, I instead, take my dog out for a walk, do 10 mins of yoga, listen to some music, make myself some tea, read a book or the most successful tactic, go to sleep!  Before I know it, the stress has lessened, I have avoided indulging in something that would not make me feel good and can go on with my day knowing that I stuck to my goals.

It is truly amazing how much our actions and habits can be changed with the simple act of awareness. Being aware of what makes us do the things we do is a powerful tool to behavior change. 

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