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How To Break Bad Eating Habits

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By Beth W. Orenstein; Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

It's not just willpower, or a lack thereof, that makes us overeat and gain weight. Sometimes, it's that sneaky bad habit you developed without even realizing it, like dashing out the door some mornings without breakfast, or munching chips in front of your favorite TV show. The next thing you know, one little bad habit can equal out to a lot of weight gain. The worst part is, you might not even realize what you're doing to your diet.

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Here, quick fixes for some of the most common bad eating and lifestyle habits that can cause you to pack on pounds.

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The Bad Habit: Mindless Eating
Cornell University food psychologist Brian Wansink, PhD, discovered that the larger the plate or bowl you eat from, the more you unknowingly consume. In one recent study, Wansink found that moviegoers given extra-large containers of stale popcorn still ate 45 percent more than those snacking on fresh popcorn out of smaller containers holding the same amount.

The Fix: Eat from smaller dishes. Try swapping out your large dinner plate for a salad plate, and never eat straight from a container or package.

The Bad Habit: Nighttime Noshing
Diet folklore suggests that eating at night is almost never a good idea if you want to lose weight. Although many experts say this old adage is pure myth, a new animal study backs up the idea that it's not only what you eat but also when you eat that counts. Researchers at Northwestern University found that mice given high-fat foods during the day (when these nocturnal animals should have been sleeping) gained significantly more weight than mice given the same diet at night.

The Fix: The diet take-away here? After dinner, teach yourself to think of the kitchen as being closed for the night, and brush your teeth - you'll want to eat less with a newly cleaned mouth. If a craving hits, wait 10 minutes. If you're still truly hungry, reach for something small like string cheese or a piece of fruit.

The Bad Habit: Endless Snacking
Here's a bad habit many are guilty of: snacking round-the-clock, often on high-calorie foods that are full of empty carbs. A recent study at the University of North Carolina found that it isn't just a problem for adults: kids are snacking more and more often on unhealthy junk food including salty chips, soda, and candy.

The Fix: Keep only healthy snacks within reach, such as hummus, carrots and cucumber slices, air-popped popcorn, yogurt, and almonds, says Jessica Crandall, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Don't stock your desk or pantry with potato chips or cookies you know you can't resist.

The Bad Habit: Skipping Breakfast
You know that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, but with so many other tasks competing for your attention, you may decide you don't have time to eat. When you skip meals, your metabolism begins to slow, Crandall explains, plus, breakfast gives you that boost of energy you need to take on your day. Without this fuel, chances are, you'll just overeat later. A new study of Chinese schoolchildren found that those who skipped breakfast gained significantly more weight over a two-year period than those who ate a morning meal.

The Fix: Have ready healthy breakfast foods you can consume on the run, Crandall says. If you're rushed, try easy items such as whole fruit, yogurt, homemade cereal bars, and smoothies.

The Bad Habit: Emotional Eating
You had a bad day at the office, and when you get home, you open the refrigerator and eat - not a good diet strategy. "You put food in your mouth as a coping mechanism," Crandall says. A number of studies confirm that emotions, both positive and negative, can cause people to eat more than they should, an easy weight-loss stumbling block.

The Fix: Find a new stress-buster, Crandall says. "If you're stressed out at work, when you get home, take a walk instead of eating or call a friend who will be empathetic," she suggests. "You can vent and take some of the stress off your shoulders." Choose any activity you like as long as it keeps you out of the kitchen.

The Bad Habit: Eating Too Quickly
Wolfing down your food, whether you're snacking or eating a meal, doesn't give your brain time to catch up with your stomach. Your brain doesn't signal that you're full until about 15 to 20 minutes after you've started eating. If you gulp down your meal in 10 minutes or less, you could end up eating way more than you need. In a study of 3,200 men and women, Japanese researchers found that eating too quickly was strongly associated with being overweight.

The Fix: To slow down your eating, physically put your fork down between bites, take smaller bites, and be sure to chew each bite thoroughly. Also, drinking water throughout your meal will help you slow down and feel fuller as you go.

The Bad Habit: Not Getting Enough Sleep
Could not getting enough sleep ruin your weight-loss efforts? Yes, according to a recent analysis by researchers in Tokyo. They found that men and women who slept five hours or less a night were more likely to gain weight than those who slept seven hours or more.

The Fix: Establish a routine for yourself, and try to go to bed and wake up at about the same times every day, even on weekends. Keep the bedroom dark and comfortable, and avoid TV or computers for at least an hour before bed. If you need extra motivation to shut off the lights early, remember that the better you sleep, the better the number when you step on the scale in the morning.

The Bad Habit: Vegging Out With Video Games
If you're watching TV, sitting in front of a computer, or playing video games, it's not only mindless snacking in front of the screen that you have to worry about. A new study found that teens who played video games for just one hour ate more the rest of the day, which resulted in weight gain. The researchers weren't sure why playing video games caused the boys to eat more, but said it's possible that sitting in front of a computer all day could have a similar effect on adults and lead to snacking.

The Fix: Take frequent breaks when you're in front of the computer - get up and walk around the room or office every 15 to 30 minutes. When the workday or your favorite TV show ends, remember to carefully monitor what you consume to you don't overstuff yourself.

The Bad Habit: Eating Junk Food
You know junk food doesn't help your waistline, but the effect may be worse than you think. Several animal studies have found that rat's brains find high-fat, high-sugar foods to be addictive - much like cocaine or heroin. Another study found that eating comfort food actually triggers feelings of happiness in humans.

The Fix: The solution isn't to eliminate your favorite indulgences from your diet -- that will only make you crave them more, Crandall says. The key to weight-loss success is to identify what you really want, and indulge in your favorite foods in moderation as special treats, not every day.

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