Ever wondered why you often revert to your old ways when trying to make a behavior change? Creating lasting habits is hard but we've brought in our A team to teach us why habit creation fails and how we can avoid those mistakes when making a change. Meet Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, registered dietitian, author of “The Better Period Food Solution” and host of Well+Good’s YouTube series, “You Versus Food.” She's knows a thing or two about habits and their relationship to food and she's here to share her insight.
This post has been updated by Kim Rose, RDN, to include further details on how to form (and keep) new healthy habits.
There is no doubt that new habits are hard to form. The journey to habit formation is not often pretty, and can leave you confused, frustrated, and disappointed. But successfully establishing a habit can help you feel empowered, motivated, and confident.
A popular train of thought is that it takes about 21 days to form a new habit. Truth be told, whether it takes 21 days to 2 months, the beginnings of habit formation can be overwhelming if S.M.A.R.T. goals are not set! S.M.A.R.T. stands for goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. To keep the good vibes going, be sure you are focused on setting realistic, attainable goals—remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day! Making several small changes over a long period of time is much better, and easier, than making one big change immediately.
For instance, if you want to eat more fruits and vegetables at each meal, a S.M.A.R.T. goal would be to start eating a cup of fruits with breakfast and a cup of vegetables with lunch until you gradually increase your intake of fruits and vegetables in all meals. This way, it is less overwhelming and allows you to make progress one step at a time.
So, how can we fight the ups and downs of habit-forming to ensure that we come out on top? Have no fear, Tracy is here!
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period
When forming a habit, the beginning phase of execution is nothing short of pure bliss. There is something to be said about having a fresh start. You're excited about this new endeavor you're about to take on, ready for change, and more motivated than ever! Whether you are trying to exercise more, write in a journal every night before bed, or decrease your time scrolling the ‘Gram, the formation of these habits is both exciting and refreshing. You feel in your heart that you can truly accomplish what you're setting out to do.
The same is true for forming healthy eating habits. It's best to practice mindful eating during the honeymoon period. Mindful eating is a process where you slow down, turn off the television and pay attention to the foods you’re eating and how it nourishes your body. The early stages of mindful eating are not really about focusing on each and every vitamin and/or mineral, but rather on gaining awareness of the foods that you choose to nourish your body. In other words, try to cherish these new feelings of habit-forming in a judgement-free zone. The judgement-free zone safely lands you in the place where you can thoughtfully consume about 80% of nutrient dense foods, while allowing yourself 20% of guilt-free eating--but we'll expound on that later.
Approaching this unfamiliar experience as a child does the first time they ride a bike allows you to be open, honest and forgiving if you accidentally slip up on your journey towards healthy eating. One thing to remember is that this period can be way too quick; so keep positive and blissful thoughts in your back pocket to inspire your future self to keep on keepin’ on!
Stage 2: Small Battles
Here come the setbacks. Perhaps you aren’t experiencing the success you had hoped for by this point. You're feeling down and losing motivation. You’ve probably asked yourself "is my goal even worth it at this point?" Trust me, we’ve all been there, and that’s A-OK. Remember, following a S.M.A.R.T. journey doesn’t mean there won't be any bumps in the road.
For example, if you're trying to form the habit of eating more vegetables in order to reach a personal health goal, then you've got to be realistic. Don’t force yourself to eat veggies you don’t like. Raw broccoli, rutabaga, and turnips take some getting used to. Grilling and roasting can help a great deal with enhancing their taste and texture. Also, learning how to cook and prepare your veggies the way you like them is a good idea. Whether sautéed in olive oil, lemon, and garlic or tossed with miso dressing and fresh minced ginger, a bright and savory flavor is always a great complement. Here's another example of a S.M.A.R.T. journey "bump in the road" and what to do about it. Let's say you’ve missed a few days at the gym because work deadlines have ramped up; you should look at those days as outliers, but not your new norm.
Finally, realize there is no such thing as a quick fix. Forming healthy habits is not about adhering to a diet which has quick (usually unsustainable) results. But rather, it's about making your lifestyle a more health conscious one. As a rule of thumb, tackle each challenge in a way that won’t overwhelm you, but will keep you on the path of progress. This progress could look like switching out a chocolate candy bar for Splendid Spoon's Mint Chip Smoothie with Cacao Nibs, or even eating one plant-based meal on a "Salad Sunday" or "Meatless Monday." These kinds of S.M.A.R.T. goals will empower you to face your healthy-eating battles head on while maintaining the realistic solutions you’ve made.
Stage 3: The Breakthrough
This stage is exactly how it sounds. You’ve made an applause-worthy breakthrough! Give yourself a pat on the back--no, honestly you deserve it. Temptations and challenges are a thing of the past, and your commitment has finally paid off.
You can successfully say you have formed a habit when you're no longer making a conscious effort to do it every day—it just becomes a part of your life. You may even forget that it was once difficult for you to cut back on your screen time, to practice mindful eating or eat more veggies during the day. You feel good about yourself, your life, and may even feel motivated to take on another S.M.A.R.T. habit or two.
While the breakthrough period is amazing, don’t expect to be there forever. Life happens, but that’s the way it's supposed to be! Remember those positive and blissful thoughts I told you to save in your back pocket from the honeymoon period? I hope you did. Because sometimes, you'll need that motivation to keep that fire under your butt burning!
Now, I don’t want you to think your breakthrough means you’re only eating fruits, vegetables and snacking on hummus and carrot sticks. For some people that may not be sustainable. Achieving the breakthrough means you’re following the 80/20 rule. Instead of eating foods high in saturated fat, added salt and sugar for 80% of the time, your diet now primarily consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time you are allowed to have that chocolate donut (or whatever dessert you fancy). Again, setting S.M.A.R.T. goals means healthy eating is attainable and realistic. It's not wise to intentionally withhold every serving of a sweet treat from your diet because you may end up overindulging and totally abandon the practice of mindful eating.
So what’s the verdict on habit forming? It's very possible. Find sources of motivation. Dig deep to understand why you want to change. Practice compassion when things are not picture perfect. And tackle one challenge at a time. At the end of the day, trying is better than not trying at all. If you fix one plank at a time on a wooden bridge, eventually you’ll be able to make it to the other side. You’ve got this! A healthy habit may take you a few days or a few months to achieve. However long your journey towards healthy eating takes, know each small step is a step in the right direction.
Feelin' inspired to take on your own food habits? Splendid Spoon makes habit forming a breeze with our ready-to-go meals, perfect for when you're too busy to think about what to eat. Get started today and see for yourself how easy eating 3+ servings of fruit and veggies in every meal is!