Can We Blame Our Habits for Making Us Fat?


We'd like to think we're free to make choices about our everyday life.

But studies show that almost half of the actions people take each day aren't actually a result of decisions - they're driven by habit alone.

Habits are so strong and so ingrained that they override many other thought processes. It seems like our human brain, trying to save on energy, goes into autopilot for every process it can use old routines for, and will fight any proposed change. The positive side of habit is that once you've mastered dressing up in the morning and backing out of your garage, your mind can wander free while you're performing a rather complicated task. The negatives are quite clear to anyone trying to lose weight or stop smoking.

Charles Duhigg's "The Power of Habit" is a fascinating exploration of the research of habits, and is packed with absorbing stories about how habits influence every aspect of our lives - the way we shop, listen to music, drive, and of course eat is driven mostly by habit. Understanding habits is the key to creating change.

The habit loop

A habit is a three-step loop, written in our brain's pathways. First comes a cue: a trigger that tells our brain to go into the automatic mode of the habit. Then comes theroutine, which is the physical, emotional or mental action we take. What follows is the reward: the prize at the end of the routine is what reminds our brain why this habit is worth keeping. When a habit is fully formed the reward's rush of excitement appears well before it actually happens - brain scans show that we expect the reward and get excited as soon as the cue appears, and this anticipation creates cravings.

Food habits start innocently: Feeling tired or bored an hour after lunch can become a cue to walk to the vending machine and select a high calorie snack that hits all the right spots and gives you the instant reward of yumminess and energy. After repeating this routine several times it becomes habit, and your brain craves to finish the loop whenever the faintest prompt shows up.

Watching TV acts as a cue for many people to munch: the cue is the TV or the couch, the routine is going through a bowl of chips, and the reward is that physical sensation of this delightful combo experience. The loop becomes so automatic, that watching TV without a bowl of munchies makes you feel robbed (and in case you forget it there's always an ad to remind you that watching is better with eating).

Advertisers are well aware of the psychology of habit, and if you examine carefully, many ads and marketing campaigns build a habit loop in which they tie a certain cue - be it a place, an emotion, a time of day, a thought or a situation - to the action of consuming their product and feeling its reward. Duhigg uses McDonald's as an example of habit building strategy:

"Every McDonald's looks the same - the company deliberately tries to standardize stores' architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards - the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. All the better for tightening the habit loop."

Keystone habits

Some habits are more important than others, because they spill over to other parts of life, causing a ripple effect. These habits are called keystone habits and identifying them can often trigger widespread change.

Take exercise: Studies show that introducing exercise - even infrequently - changes other daily routines. Unknowingly, people who start to exercise start eating better, are less stressed, and become more productive at work. Duhigg lists eating dinner as a family as a keystone habit, which seems to go with better homework skills, higher grades, better self-control and more confidence.

I'd argue that sugary drinks are a keystone habit that initiates an array of associated poor nutrition habits. That's one of the reasons most serious diet programs target the sugary drink habit first - winning the soda habit change leads to several other wins that follow.

Is habit destiny?

Once a fresh sheet of paper has been folded it will tend to fold into the same crease, and once water carved a path in the soft soil water will naturally flow in the same route, but our habits are malleable, and as Duhigg concludes:

"Once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it . . . others have done so . . . That, in some ways, is the point of this book… how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention and money - those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp and the only option left is to get to work."

Changing habits is very hard work, and thinking about the power of established habit should remind us to be aware of habit acquisition, especially as parents.

We can do our kids a favor by helping them acquire good habits - habits that ensure that their automatic, default routines are healthy and beneficial. If kids brush their teeth every night before bedtime, get used to healthy eating habits, learn how to cook and are active when young they're likely to continue doing these things throughout life.

We should also do our best to help them avoid habits that will be difficult to fight later on. Highly processed, densely caloric salty sweet and fatty foods are addictiveand habit forming - ads make them even more so. Eating while multitasking, constant snacking and eating in the back seat of a car are learned routines that will not serve them well.

Dr. Ayala

"It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them" ~Benjamin Franklin

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