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Bad Eating Habits: How Did You Get Them?

Posted Dec 23 2009 2:00am

by Maria's Last Diet

We are all skilled in the art of habit-making. We do it all the time, and it is easy for us. We do it without thinking—and sometimes that's exactly the trouble.

In Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irritational, habits can be likened to behavior called 'herding'. Herding is when we follow what other people are doing, thinking that since other people are doing something, it must be a good thing to do.

In the case of habits, this takes on an interesting twist called 'self-herding'. This is when we follow not someone else, but our own previous behavior, without stopping long enough to consider whether it's really good for us or not.

Here is an example of how this might work to create problematic eating habits. Perhaps at some point a woman is having a difficult time in life, and she treats herself to a sweet piece of candy, and then maybe a few more pieces. And let's say the next week or so something goes wrong again—big or little—and she starts to feel worried or anxious or scared or overwhelmed. Now here's the tricky part. Human nature has a way of nudging us in the direction of the simplest approach to relieving a bad feeling. We don't usually stop to think about long-term consequences, or whether the approach is beneficial to us or not. We don't go into complex computations about how our behavior might lead to a weight control problem, or anything like that. We tend to take the path of least resistance, which very often means doing what we did before, especially if it worked out for us.

Let's go back to our woman. The next time she feels bad for one reason or another, she instantly remembers what she did the last two times and does it again. She acts this way time and again, not realizing that she is no longer choosing to deal with difficult situations by eating sweet comfort food—she has become habituated to it.

And that's not all there is to it. Moving on from candy, she may now easily go to other kinds of eating - junk food, comfort food, overeating - in order to cope with life. It gets easier and easier. This is how eating habits are born, and then it sticks.

Thinking, weighing your options, considering the pros and cons of your behavior—all this is much harder than just following suit again and again, doing what you always do. It ends up feeling right.

So the habit starts with a good experience. You feel soothed by having something delicious to eat, and it grows from there.

The good news is, habits can most definitely be broken. It takes, first of all, a real desire to do so. Then what it takes is careful attention, thought, daring to try something different, practicing the different behavior just like you practiced the old behavior. With enough practice, you end up with a new habit that can be much, much better for you.

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