6 Strategies to Kick Your Junk Food Habit

Article posted in: Lifestyle
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Do you feel the urge to eat a cookie with an afternoon cup of coffee each day? Do you find yourself scooping out a dish of ice cream whenever you sit down to watch television? Are you trying to break hard-to-resist junk food habits? Understanding how habits work can help you regain control of them and make conscious choices that will keep you on the path to your weight loss goal.

Human beings naturally develop habits, both helpful and harmful, because automatic behaviors free up our brains to focus on other things, explains Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “The general machinery by which we build both kinds of habits are the same, whether it’s a habit for overeating or a habit for getting to work without really thinking about the details.”

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Changing unhealthy habits can be particularly challenging, Dr. Poldrack explains, because enjoyable behaviors prompt your brain to release a chemical called dopamine that reinforces the pleasure. “If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you’re not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again.”

But “self-control is like a muscle,” which you can train and use to your advantage, says Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University who has studied decision-making and willpower. Here are six steps that he and other experts recommend to exercise your willpower, strengthen your self-control, and break unhealthy habits. They’ll help you learn how to stop eating junk food and lose weight:

1. One at a time.
Most of us have a few changes that would make our daily routines more healthy. But your willpower can be overtaxed and weaken if you try to stop all of your unwanted habits at once. Choose one at a time and focus your energy only on it, then move onto others once you have the first one mastered.

2. Set incremental goals.
“Never” and “always” can be difficult, maybe even impossible, standards to reach. Better, experts say, to establish attainable goals that move you closer to your ultimate endpoint by taking small steps. You could, for instance, decide that you will have a cookie with your coffee only twice a week. Once you have it down to twice a week, you can shoot for once a week and then try avoid the cookie altogether.

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3. Change up the sequence.
Your junk-food habits are not isolated choices, but rather are a chain of events that lead up to the unhealthy decision. “This chain of behaviors can consist of both physical and mental links,” Dr. Poldrack says. The junk-food habit thinking pattern can go something like this: “I had a stressful day and I don’t have time to cook. I deserve to eat something I enjoy. I will pick up fast food.” To break the chain of events that lead to the fast food, you can make individual servings of your favorite homemade meals in bulk and keep them in your freezer. Then you can reach for one when you crave satisfying food without a stop for takeout.

4. Replace the habit.
Breaking a habit becomes much easier if you substitute a new one. You can start by identifying the reward your bad habit provides, such as stress-release or relaxation. Then choose a replacement that gives you a similar, but healthy reward. Do you need to crunch some chips after a tough day? Switch to crunching down on vegetables such as carrots and celery. Instead of sitting down to watch television with a dish of ice cream when you need to forget your daily stresses, turn on music and dance. Choose a cup of subtly sweet peppermint tea as an afternoon pick-me-up instead of a can of soda.

5. Reward your successes.

While your body has that innate reward system, dopamine, consciously reinforcing your positive achievements encourages you to repeat them. You can create another reward system for yourself that supports healthy habits. When you pass on a cookie with your afternoon coffee, for example, treat yourself to 10 minutes of scrolling through your social media news feed or online shopping as you sip. Before you know it, you’ll be looking forward to the healthy reward as much as the cookie.

6. Forgive slip-ups.
You will, at times, slip back into unhealthy habits. It happens to all of us. But when it does, don’t concede defeat and stop trying to conquer your habits. Instead, acknowledge that you hit an obstacle and then start over. Remember, everyday that you eat a healthy diet is a good day and that if today wasn’t one, you get to try again tomorrow, and the day after that.