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Focus on Food to Break Bad Habits

Retrain your brain by focusing on your foods.
Retrain your brain by focusing on your foods.

Bad habits are notoriously difficult to break. About 40 percent of your daily activities are done out of habit. You’ve learned what things will get you through a day, and you repeat what works.

Consider a trip to the movie theater. Researchers in Philadelphia asked moviegoers to taste fresh and stale popcorn. As expected, people preferred fresh popcorn.

Then those researchers randomly gave moviegoers free popcorn in large and extra-large containers. There was a twist. Half of the moviegoer’s popcorn was fresh, and half was ten days old.

Incredibly, participants who got the stale popcorn ate just as much as participants who got the fresh popcorn. The habit of eating popcorn while in the theater was so entrenched, that the participants ignored the quality of their food.

To make this decision, two parts of your brain are arguing. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex planning, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. Most of your well-thought-out plans, goals and good intentions come from there. Before you eat something you shouldn’t, your prefrontal cortex is explaining why it’s a bad idea.

Then there’s your orbitofrontal cortex, the part of your brain thought to represent emotion and reward in decision making. So while your prefrontal cortex says, “You really shouldn’t eat that stale popcorn.” Your orbitofrontal cortex is screaming, “EAT IT! You love popcorn. It tastes AWESOME. Don’t worry; you can exercise a little harder tomorrow to get rid of the calories. DO IT!”

Unfortunately, your orbitofrontal cortex is better at getting attention, especially when it comes to things you’ve turned into a habit. That means you’re probably going to tear into that tub of stale popcorn and munch away.

Sheer willpower won’t help you overrule that part of your brain. If it were that easy, everyone would be able to eliminate any bad habit quickly. But there are ways to make lasting changes.

Step One, focus on what you’re DOING.

When you pick up that first piece of popcorn, look at it closely. As you take a bite, consider how it tastes. Think about what eating that popcorn is going to mean. Yes, it might taste good for a few seconds, but it has little nutritional value; it’s dripping in fat and often covered in salt. Eating that popcorn isn’t going to move you toward your goals. Plus, you might realize you’re eating stale popcorn.

Focus on the Food
Take a moment to focus on the food.

Every time you’re about to eat something, turn off outside distractions and focus on your food. It’s a lot easier to munch mindlessly at the movies or with the TV on. If you’re at home, set a place for yourself at a table. Then put a timer in front of you. When you eat, pick up the fork or spoon, take a bite and then set the utensil back down. Let the timer countdown 20 seconds before you pick the silverware up and take another bite. Pay attention and think about what you’re doing.

Paying attention is unlikely to change your habit immediately. But each time you do it, you’re giving that emotional part of your brain more reasons to feel better about avoiding a popcorn binge than engaging in one. Over time you’ll feel more compelled to skip the popcorn instead of grabbing a handful.

Step Two, you’ve got to introduce friction into the old way of doing things and reduce friction for healthier alternatives.

Limit access to unhealthy foods. Don’t store cookies, candies, fatty convenience foods or sugar-filled drinks in your home. It’s hard to binge if you have to leave the house every time you want to eat junk. Then do the same thing at work. Ditch the unhealthy food delivery menus and pack your lunch. Banish the candy bowl and stop going into break rooms that have donuts or cookies in them.

Step Three, stick with it.

Changing habits takes time. Some people can do it in as little as a month. Others may only catch on after six months or even a year. Pay attention and keep focusing on your food until the junk is no longer compelling.

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beginning any diet or exercise program.