Why Your Brain Makes It Hard to Change Food Habits

Anyone who’s ever tried to change their food and eating habits knows it’s not easy. You may do okay at first when you’re being really careful, but once your attention wavers, your old habits often come right back.


I started thinking about why this is so hard after listening to an episode of the Science Friday podcast. The episode didn’t have anything to do with food, but it did have to do with the brain.


The episode included an interview with Mary Frances O’Connor, author of The Grieving Brain. And she said something that struck me, which is that the brain is a prediction machine.


When it comes to a loss, part of the challenge is that our brains still predict that the person who’s gone will be there again. After all, that’s what’s always happened before, and after years or decades of that prediction being true, it’s hard for our brains to adjust to the reality of the person’s absence.


This may not immediately seem to relate to food habits, but I think it does.


Predicting your responses

When it comes to finding patterns and making predictions, our brains excel, and not only with people. We look for patterns everywhere, even if we’re not conscious of it, and we use that information to predict what will happen in a similar situation.


For example, I’ve noticed a pattern that if I try to drive somewhere at 7:30 a.m. on a weekday, the traffic is heavier than it is if I wait until 8 or 8:30. This has happened often enough that I can predict that will be true on most days – though I can also predict that this will change on big holidays like Christmas.


This approach applies to food as well. For example, if you usually reach for ice cream or chocolate or chips when you’re stressed, then your brain will notice that pattern. If this happens often enough, your brain will predict – and expect – that you’ll do the same the next time you feel stressed.


And if this is a habit you’ve had for years and years, consider how ingrained that response is. You probably don’t even think about it anymore – it’s just what you do.


Tips for changing the prediction

This means that changing your habits will probably be difficult. But the good news is, it’s not impossible. If you want proof, just think of how you had to change things over the past couple of years of COVID.


But if you can find a way to make changes go more smoothly, that will make it easier to stick with the new habits. Here are a few tips for how to do that:


1: Become aware

The first thing is to notice when you reach for food and then see if you can find patterns that you’d like to change. This is the best starting point because you can only make a change when you know what needs to be different.


2: Start small

It also helps to make gradual adjustments instead of big, sweeping changes. Instead of saying you won’t have ice cream at all when you’re stressed, for example, you could say that you’ll have a smaller amount.


3: Mentally rehearse

Rehearsing and preparing is another good option. If you think about the situation you want to change, imagine that scene in your head, and then imagine yourself doing something different when the situation comes up. Doing this a few times will lay the groundwork for the change, so it won’t be as much of a stretch when you do it in reality.



Change isn’t easy

Making changes in our lives isn’t easy for a lot of us, especially after years of doing things a certain way.


So if you want to make new habits stick, notice your current habits and identify what you want to change. Start with small, gradual shifts in your habit, and get some practice in ahead of time by imagining yourself in that situation. If you can do that, you may find new habits easier to adopt than they have been in the past.

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