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How to eat healthy without overthinking it — according to the latest research in habits

Why do we make certain food choices?  Why do we like some foods and not others? Why do we overeat, even when we are full? Why is it difficult to break some habits and start others?

These powerful questions are the very core of health and human behavior research, yet they are not so easily answered. At the recent European Union Food Information Council (EUFIC) Symposium on Behavior Change, behavioral scientists revealed the latest research and innovative strategies for encouraging people to eat well without having to think so much about it. Phew!

Ultimately, we all want to live better, live longer and love life. To do so, certain lifestyle habits have been identified as being advantageous for health. In a nutshell, behaviors associated with health and longevity include eating a healthful diet, getting regular exercise, smoking abstinence and blood pressure control.

If we look at healthful diet in particular, experts generally agree that whole, plant-based and minimally processed foods are the best options for health and longevity. Yet, knowing what to eat, and actually eating it, are two entirely different things. Why we eat what we eat is far more complicated than hunger.


Why do we eat?

Dr. Katherine Appleton, Associate Professor in Psychology at the Bournemouth University in England, studies eating behavior, healthy eating, appetite, and weight control. During her lecture at the Symposium, Dr. Appleton revealed: “...very little of our eating is the result of hunger or thirst.” There are primarily four psychological factors which affect why we eat:

  1. Emotions - happiness, good mood, boredom, poor mood, stress.

  2. Cognitions - beliefs, awareness, attitudes, control, knowledge, restraint.

  3. Environment - the setting which surrounds us, timing, culture, traditions, distractions, portion sizes, effort.

  4. Hedonic - likes, tastes, familiarity, enjoyment.

So, how might that play out in real life? One example might be if it´s noon, the clock nudges you to have lunch; or another might be, if you are at work, smells emanating from the microwave might entice you into eating.  If you live here in Spain, you might close up shop and take a two-hour lunch break because the habit of doing so is traditional to the culture. The majority of “everyday eating behavior” is the result of such hedonic and environmental factors.


Healthy Eating versus Everyday Eating

However, “healthy eating behavior” is something slightly different. According to research, people who eat "healthy" generally do so as a result of beliefs, awareness, attitudes or knowledge—the cognitive factors. This suggests that the knowledge of how food benefits our health is important to us when we eat healthfully. Researchers found such cognitive factors explain about 40-60% of our intentions to eat "healthy."

However, before you give yourself a pep-talk on eating more broccoli, studies show that cognitions account for only 20-40% of actual “healthy eating behavior.” In other words, we have grandiose plans for how we're going to eat and stay motivated, but have a genuinely tough time with the follow-through. Does that sounds about right?

The difficulty arises when we are confronted with numerous choices throughout the day and have to maintain a high level of vigilance to make numerous decisions regarding our food. We make an estimated 200 decisions daily regarding food choices. Making repeated choices amidst a barrage of food options can be exhausting and overwhelming.  


Traditional Behavior Change Methods

According to Dr. Rebecca Beeken, Senior Research Psychologist at the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London, traditional approaches to change eating behaviors involve information and education. This translates to telling the public why and what we should be doing to reduce disease risk. However, based on this method, information and education are not enough to get us to change our habits.

“We all, or most of us, know what we should be doing, in terms of what we should be eating and how much but not all of us do it or at least not all of the time. That’s because behavior is much more complex and there are a number of factors that influence whether or not we engage in a behavior. Yet, unhealthy eating behaviors in many cases, are not only a consequence of lack of knowledge.”
— Dr. Rebecca Beeken

So, what if we modeled our "healthy eating behaviors" after "everyday eating behaviors"—making eating more enjoyable and less cerebral?

“Researchers have long known that for healthy eating to impact on health it needs to be repeated, it needs to be sustained, it needs to become habitual, and essentially it needs to become everyday eating.”
— Dr. Katherine Appleton, Associate Professor in Psychology at the Bournemouth University


I couldn't agree more!  Instead of trying to make the perfect choice time and time again, we should be focusing on making the nutritious foods more accessible. In other words, make “healthful eating” easy, enjoyable and available to everyone. Behavioral researchers have been exploring innovative ways to use hedonic and environmental factors to nudge us in the direction of healthy eating. It's not about trying to force people to do what they are not willing to do. It is about making healthy choices—which may be aligned with personal preferences—easier to act upon, without having to think about it.


Innovative Behavioral Research

An innovative approach in recent years has focused on targeting automatic processes, or those things that we do without really thinking about them. This is particularly helpful for people who have busy lives or have a lot to remember—sound familiar, ladies?


The more you like a food, the more likely you are to eat it. No surprise there. Humans are born with preferences for sweet and fat. The majority of our taste preferences develop further over time and over exposure, as a result of positive and negative experiences. We can develop new food experiences and affinities for flavors by forging new associations based on new and positive experiences. Having moved to Spain as an adult, my food preferences were turned upside down after new food experiences replaced the old ones. For example, foods I used to avoid—like mussels, octopus and squid ink rice—are now some of my favorite foods. After trying them several times, I find myself resetting my preferences and eating healthy out of habit.

Using the premise of liking, or hedonic factors, researchers found that if we add a new food taste to another food already enjoyed, we are more likely to try it. This novel approach shifts the preferences to favor new foods.


We know that the larger the portion, the larger the packet and the less effort required, the more we eat—that´s for sure. In previous studies, researchers found that people drank less water in a day if they had to walk to the end of a hall verses reach across the table, selected more food if they had a larger plate, ate less candy if it was wrapped versus unwrapped, and ate fewer nuts if the they were shelled versus unshelled.

Using environmental determinants, called nudge theory, choice architecture or behavioral economics, researchers have been studying how small changes in our environment can gently nudge people towards certain foods, even without consciously thinking about it. As it stands now, our current environment nudges us to eat more highly processed, nutrient-poor foods, through the use of marketing, supermarket shelves, vending machines at work and school, drive-through restaurants, pre-packaged convenience meals, supersized and oversized portions, etc. Nudging research aims to nudge consumer choices, not by removing the less "healthy" ones, but by making nourishing options easier to find. For example, making a veggie the standard side dish for a meal, or providing wide, attractive well-lit stairwells in public buildings to encourage more walking.

Nudging demonstrates the value of “everyday eating” behaviors, which are associated with pleasure and environment of eating, as opposed to relying exclusively on conscious, thoughtful responses every step of the way.


Habit Formation Theory

Beeken suggests there is evidence that habit formation can help individuals learn healthy lifestyle behaviors: “Habits are automatically triggered actions that are formed through repetition in a consistent context that helps increase their automaticity over time.” The more we do them, the more automatic they become over time. Habit-based behavior change requires less engagement or motivation, is easy to explain to individuals and more likely to be maintained over time. This is quite the contrary to the highly demanding, reflective, thought-provoking cognition which requires more thinking about deliberate actions for continued success.

Follow up research, led by University College London research psychologist, Dr. Phillippa Lally, reports how automaticity had developed, and the new behaviors became second nature so that participants felt strange if they did not do them. As a result, actions that were initially difficult to stick to became easier to maintain.


There is no perfect set of ingredients for creating new habits. For each person, starting something new can be challenging. However, there are a few principles which can help you get started and help your actions become habits.


1. Anchor the new behavior to an existing behavior

The simplest way to make lifestyle changes into a habit is to attach the action to an already existing habit in your daily routine. For example, doing five yoga stretches as your morning coffee is brewing or ordering your produce each week on the same day you work from home. Each is a small, actionable task, anchored to an already existing task or habit.


2. Find a Keystone Habit

Charles Duhigg, author of the New York Times Bestseller, The Power of Habit, suggests focusing on “keystone habits,” which are patterns that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other habits.” In a Lifehacker article, Duhigg writes: “...some habits are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”

An example of a keystone habit might be to exercise before going to work. By committing to a workout routine in the morning, you might feel less stressed, be more productive at work and sleep better at night. That keystone habit initiates a whole cascade of events, all aligned with your lifestyle.


3. Repeat the behavior

The key to forming a new habit is to repeat the behavior in the same situation. The setting in which you perform the action must be consistent so that it can cue the desirable behavior.


4. How long does it take to form a new habit?

There isn't any magic number of days required to form a habit, and it depends very much on the individual and the difficulty of the task. One famous study, by Phillippa Lally, surveyed 96 people over a 12-week period and reported that it took, on average, 66 days for a new healthy habit to feel automatic. The time it took for the habit to form varied between a short 18 days to nearly 254 days.


What is your keystone habit for health?

What action can you complete today, which will initiate the cascade of healthy living?

Share your ideas in the comments!


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