How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits in 6 Steps

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If you have ever gone on a diet or tried to eat healthier, you have probably realized that you have some eating habits that aren’t the best. Today I wanted to share with you some tried and true steps on how to break unhealthy eating habits for good.

One of the first steps to improving your health or losing weight is to start eating a healthy diet. If you search Pinterest, you will find an endless number of diets that will help you get on your way.

But often when we start these new diets, we come up against some of our unhealthy eating habits that make it hard to be successful. No matter how great our intentions, if we don’t address some of our underlying tendencies, we won’t be able to stick with our healthy changes for the long term.

Read on to learn how to recognize your unhealthy eating habits and how to break them.

How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits

How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits in 6 Steps

What is an unhealthy eating habit??

Before I talk to you about the steps on how to break unhealthy habits, I wanted to be super clear on what an unhealthy eating habit actually is. This is how the Oxford Dictionary defines a habit:

Habit: (n) a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

Using that definition, then an unhealthy eating habit would be regular eating behaviors and tendencies that are harmful or detrimental to our health. Here are a few examples of some unhealthy eating habits.

  • eating past satisfied
  • indulging in late-night snacking
  • giving into frequent sugar cravings
  • drinking lots of sugary drinks
  • overeating unhealthy junk food
  • binge eating
  • mindless snacking
  • emotional overeating

Some unhealthy eating habits are more harmful than others, but even minor ones can be an obstacle to eating a healthy diet. Below I’m going to show you how to break all of your unhealthy eating habits, big and small.

Step #1: Clearly define the unhealthy eating habit you want to stop.

The very first step on how to break unhealthy eating habits is to recognize what habit you are trying to break. You need to know exactly what the problem is.

For example, one of my unhealthy eating habits I had to break was eating late at night. I was notorious at my house for making pancakes at 9:15 at night if I was having a tough day. I would then eat more than a few and go to bed within an hour or so.

To be most successful, I suggest you focus on breaking one unhealthy eating habit at a time. The example I’m using could technically be broken down into two habits; late-night eating and emotional overeating.

When I focused on breaking this habit, first I worked on just the late-night snacking and then at a later time I worked on my overall habit of emotional overeating (that was an all-day event 😒).

How to Break Unhealthy Eating habits

Step # 2: Identify your trigger(s).

Once you know what unhealthy habit you are trying to break, you need to figure out what triggers the behavior in the first place. Since unhealthy eating behaviors can be so habitual we often don’t even realize when we are doing them until we’ve already started.

It takes practice and observation to identify what is triggering our unhealthy eating behaviors. One good method to help figure it out is to journal or talk with someone about how you were feeling or what happened prior to the behavior.

You may find that you have a single trigger for your poor eating habit, or you might have several. Either result is normal.

When it came to my late-night eating, I found that I had multiple triggers. I could easily be triggered by stress or high emotions (i.e. my kids driving me crazy or getting frustrated with my husband), sugar cravings, or simply the habit of eating at that time of night.

Step #3: Eliminate the trigger(s).

Once you become aware of what triggers your unhealthy eating habit, you can work to eliminate the trigger if at all possible. You can try to remove or avoid the thing that prompts you to fall back into your old eating patterns.

When it came to my late-night snacking, most of my triggers were internal thoughts or feelings so they weren’t necessarily something I could easily remove.

Now if I had been triggered by walking through the kitchen to clean up or do the dishes, I could choose to clean up right after dinner or possibly the next morning. That would remove the trigger and cut down on the behavior.

Step #4: Choose a different response to the trigger(s).

The other option for dealing with a trigger is to choose a different response to it. This means that you work on practicing a different response to the triggers that we talked about above. This is also referred to as a pattern interrupt.

So using the example I mentioned above, my triggers for my late-night snacking were emotional eating, sugar cravings, and the habit of eating at the same time every night. Each of these triggers required a different strategy and response.

For my emotional eating, my old pattern was 1.) feel stressed out or anxious 2.) go look in the pantry or fridge for something to snack on 3.) eat something high in sugar and/or carbs until I temporarily felt better.

The new pattern I put in place looked like this 1.) feel stressed out or anxious 2.) give myself a pep talk about why food won’t solve my problems 3.) brainstorm other ideas that will help myself feel better 4.) follow through on one of my brainstorm ideas.

For the other triggers I had to put a completely different plan in place, but they all had the same result. When I encountered my trigger to late-night snacking, I had a plan in place to redirect my behavior to something more positive and healthy for my body and mind.

Step #5: Create positive reinforcement for the new behavior.

The next step on how to break unhealthy eating habits is to create some positive reinforcement for the new behavior. This is crucial for helping our minds want to follow through on the new patterns.

Our brains are creatures of habit. They love to get really good and efficient at following through on the same patterns and behaviors.

Therefore, it helps to create some short term gratification for following through on our new patterns. Something that will help light up the pleasure center in your brain each time you break away from your unhealthy eating habit.

I would love to tell you that simply knowing you are making positive steps toward your health goals is motivation enough, but honestly some days it just doesn’t cut it. If your health goal is one that might take months to achieve, you are going to need something to keep you going in the short term.

How to choose your positive reward system

When choosing your positive reward system, make sure whatever reward you choose isn’t food-related and doesn’t undermine your overall health goals. For example, rewarding yourself with a piece of cake after a long day of avoiding sugary foods is going to send your brain mixed messages as well as make it that much harder to avoid sugar in the future.

Here are some good ideas for reward systems:

  • Add a checkmark or a sticker to the calendar every day you are successful
  • Share with a friend or on social media every time you resist the old unhealthy eating habit
  • Buy yourself a small gift every 10 times you follow through with your new patterns

It doesn’t matter so much what your specific reward system is. What matters is that you take the time to celebrate each little win in your efforts to break the unhealthy eating habit. Give your brain a payoff for doing the new behavior.

How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits

Step # 6: Practice, practice, practice!

The last step on how to break unhealthy eating habits is to practice, practice, practice! I cannot emphasize this enough. These skills take practice to master.

First, you have to practice really learning and understanding what your unhealthy eating habits are. Then you have to practice being aware of what your triggers are. This step can be especially tricky because our triggers are often totally different than what we thought they were.

Next, you practice figuring out a successful plan to eliminate the trigger or create a new behavior pattern. You might try one thing and find out it doesn’t work for you. Then you have to go back and try something new.

Trust me when I say this step might take some trial and error. And that’s ok! The best way to be successful is to keep trying until you find what works. Then you practice, practice, practice until you’re good at it.

It took me a couple of months to work through my late-night snacking. I had a few plans that didn’t work out so I had to go back to the drawing board and readjust. But I will tell you, that getting to a point where I feel more in control of my diet and my relationship with food was completely worth the effort and time I put into it.

Conclusion on How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits in 6 Steps

Most unhealthy eating habits have been ingrained in us from childhood and early adulthood. They are habits that we have practiced for years! So don’t lose hope if these steps don’t click right away.

It’s going to take time and lots of practice to become aware of these habits and create successful strategies to break them. I know if you stay consistent with these steps you will get on the road to achieving your health goals.

If you have some steps that have helped you to break unhealthy eating habits, I would love to hear about it. Comment below or email me at Candice@littlestepsbighappy.com. Follow me on Pinterest for more advice on eating healthy and living a fit and healthy lifestyle.

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How to Break Unhealthy Eating Habits

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