Starting new habits is hard. Some changes take longer to become second nature than others; there is no magic number. The key to making a long-term change is sticking with it and making it a habit as soon as possible to avoid expending willpower.
Here are eight ways to establish long-term healthy eating habits — especially after a relapse.
#1 Make it effortless
An estimated 47% of our behavior repeats daily, with minimal thought needed. Find a way to quickly connect your new behavior to an existing habit, and it won’t use up as much of your willpower. For example, add a handful of spinach to the omelet you make every morning.
#2 Be Realistic
When setting goals, start out “smart,” by making specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound plans. In our eagerness to reach the finish line, we often aim too high, which sets us up to fail. If you never cook dinner, start by committing to cooking one or two meals a week at home.
#3 Smart with less
You wouldn’t run a marathon if you’ve never run a mile, so apply that same logic to your eating habits. Smaller goals are easier to implement, allowing room to grow. Choose roasted broccoli over fries. Eat protein at every meal. Drink water not soda. Small changes add up and bolster your self-confidence and motivation.
#4 Remove the obstacle
If you know something is likely to derail your habits, avoid it or change it. Walk home another way instead of passing the bakery, suit up in workout clothes before you leave work so you’re not tempted to go immediately home or invite a friend to yoga instead of out for drinks.
#4 Stack the deck in your favor
Once you’ve removed the obstacles, set yourself up to succeed. Throw out all junk food. Keep healthy takeout menus on hand. Sign up for a healthy meal-delivery service. Do whatever you can to make it easier to reach your goal.
#5 A stumble may avoid a fall
Author Gretchen Rubin cites this as one of the five traps that can destroy your good habits. That is, if you have one hard day or a couple of slip-ups, you haven’t undone all your hard work — unless you let it. Sometimes a “mistake” can work in your favor, reminding you how committed you are to changing or, for example, how awful you feel after eating that extra piece of cake. This is the difference between a diet mindset, which works against our self-control, and a sustainable habit, which reinforces and builds it.
#6 Treat yourself
Healthy eaters know that while you shouldn’t use food as a reward, you also need to live a little. Food is fuel, but it is often the central part of any celebration. Learn to embrace a philosophy of moderation by letting go of the good food/bad food mentality, which can help you shift from a punitive diet mentality to a true appreciation for healthier eating habits.
#7 Take a Break
In her book “Better Than Before,” Rubin says restarting is harder than starting. When life gets crazy — and it will — pause your habits instead of quitting them. Take a step back (one home-cooked dinner, not two) or stay where you are until life settles down. If you get off-track, pause rather than stop. Reframing the habit this way can help you pick up where you left off.