Making habits stick and why diets don’t help

Our brain is the most metabolically active tissue in our body. To state the obvious, it’s quite clever but even the brain has limitations and short-cuts it puts in place to help us navigate information overload.

The part of the brain that makes us human, often referred to as the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for reasoning, self-control, and planning. But we can’t give attention to absolutely everything – it would be impossible, and we’d literally be unable to function.

Automatic behaviour – the use of filters

So, the brain applies filters – screening out anything that doesn’t seem important. This is central to it being able to cope with the complexity of the world. This is why so much of our behaviour around food feels so automatic. We have to make so many food decisions a day, it would grind us to a halt if the decision on what to have for lunch took us an hour to make, so much of our eating behaviour shifts into the automatic/ subconscious. Behavioural scientist Wendy Wood and colleagues identified that 43% of our behaviours are habits and 57% are conscious decisions.

Diets require constant attention

In contrast though, when trying to follow a diet and the accompanying rules, it does require more effort and this is exhausting for the brain. In fact, dieters have been shown to obsess about food more than those that aren’t in calorie deficits. Even when one meal is skipped, researchers found the brain registered words describing food more readily than other words in a sequence.

Add to this the reward pathways in the brain, that are responsible for driving us towards choices that are seen as better for our survival (apple pie rather than apples for example). This is just one of many reasons why diets fail and it’s not your fault.

So, if you’re following an overly restricted diet that means you are not in tune with your body, it will never become a habit. It would always feel hard and it will always fail.

The secret of those who have it sussed

Those around us who seem to have more will power, or healthier habits that they do with ease, have been found to not be using will power or self-control at all. These healthier habits are actually more automatic for them, requiring less conscious effort for the brain so its win win. What helps with this is practice. Repetitive actions that then begin to trigger a certain behaviour, which can then be slotted nicely into the automatic. Phew!

So, if you make things goal focused, e.g. I will only drink wine on the weekend, or I will go for a run 3 times a week, it may well fail. Instead, create the habit – put your trainers by the door, only buy wine on a Friday. Rinse and repeat. Once these things become a habit we’re winning. Habitual runners for example, see the woods and are triggered to run. Non-habitual runners have to drag their behinds to the woods and its effortful – at least to begin with, hence the need to repeat the same trigger of events over and over.

Where to start

  1. Are the new habits you’re trying to put in place feeling like hard work? Ask yourself whether they’re actually not very good for your body, forcing other factors into play.
  2. Are you trying to tackle too many habits in one go? Can you focus on one smaller thing and repeat it?
  3. Are you making this about external goals – the weight on the scales perhaps, rather than the goal coming from within yourself?
  4. Is a desire for body shape change, actually stopping you from nourishing and nurturing yourself with more self-compassion?

You may also find Getting on the Scales – Weighing Up the Reasons
a helpful read.

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