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  • Writer's pictureSandhya Gokal

From Mundane to Magic Part 2 - Making eating habits Fun (2023)

Updated: Nov 8, 2023


Glasses topped with fruit and vegetables


“What can I get here that has no sugar, no carbs and is fat free?

Water.” - A Cinderella story


This is the second post in my 3 part series on injecting boring essential habits with a sense of whimsy, quirkiness and a swirly whirl of unpredictability - that is, FUN!


Over three posts, we will explore the three of the most common habits people find arduous, and find ways to distil some of those elements into them to make them more sticky. The first one, which you can read here, covered exercise.


Today’s topic is….


Eating well!

(surprise! Bet you didn’t see that one coming! :P)


Eating habits are a topic near and dear to my heart. I started looking into eating habits and how to change them when I was a pharmacist intern, eager to learn and make an impact on the health of my patients. Out of curiosity, I experimented with multiple different lifestyle choices to see the lasting impact they had on both weight and general health. It’s been almost 10 years, and I still get as wriggly as an excited puppy when I see new information come out on eating habits.


Hypothesis:


Connecting eating habits with fun will have a significant positive impact on healthy food choices and make it easier, if not effortless



Part of the reason food habits are so critical, yet paradoxically incredibly hard to change is because food is a necessity. Food represents safety and any threat to your safety evokes fear. And we all know, fear can sometimes make us act irrationally, like eating a whole pizza if we are really hungry to begin with, even if we are full after 2 slices.


So when you start messing around with your food habits, your brain lights up and blares out, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”


Secondly, food can be an addictive substance. Studies around processed, sugary foods have shown that when given the choice, 94% of animals will choose sugary foods over cocaine! A 2022 meta-analysis suggests that 20% of adults are addicted to food, going out of their way to get their favourite foods, overeating and experiencing withdrawals. These individuals fail to change their behaviour even when they have side effects.


Thirdly, food habits are formed when you are a child. If your parents restricted your sweet intake as a kid, that imprints on your brain, and you might develop a sneaky sweet tooth that has you hiding in a corner eating a packet of Tim-Tams. If you were rewarded with food for being a good child, that etches a mark on your brain, and you might continue that habit despite it no longer serving you as an adult.


There is a behavioural theory called the Polyvagal Theory which states that social connection is the primary way that mammals calm themselves. When relationships fall by the wayside, food can serve a similar function


Children from countries with food scarcity often exhibit food-hoarding behaviours, even when there is no shortage of food. This stems from the pre-industrial revolution, where hunters and gatherers had to search for food. If they discovered a fruit tree or a source of honey, survival instincts caused them to remember the location and keep going back for more to ensure they had enough nutrition and energy to get to their next meal.


The main reasons why people want to change eating habits


a trellis with "Eat well, feel good" in neon lights


To understand HOW to change eating behaviours, we must understand the motivations behind WHY people want to change eating habits. Here are the 3 most common ones.

Motivation

Why

Solution

To LOOK good

Society driven identity remains the mainstay of how we perceive our self-image. Rarely do you come across an individual who is immune to the power of social influence, who wears whatever they want, whenever they want with no regards to how they look to others. Luckily, societal norms are becoming more accepting of all shapes and sizes, slowly leading to more health focused eating patterns.

A great way to combat this is to explore your own body type, what fashions suit you and create your own style. Another method is to surround yourself with people who accept you as you are, be this on social media or in real life. Lastly, doing mindset work with a coach, psychologist or self-development books is a great way to reflect on your thoughts around your body image.

To BE good

“Self-indulgence” and “treating myself” are phrases commonly used in relation to food. Food has long been categorised as good or bad, and by extension, people identify themselves as good or bad when choosing foods.

Disconnecting your identity goes a long way towards self-acceptance. Remember, shame is not a good motivator! Food is neither good nor bad.

To FEEL good

Feelings drive action. Eating as a response to emotions is a common way of regulating negative feelings. Feeling good and having the energy to do what you want to do is the number one reason I see clients who want to make changes to their eating habits.

Motivation that comes from within is the key to behaviour change. Being told by a doctor you need to change your eating habits because you might be on the verge of type 2 diabetes is motivating. But deciding for yourself that you never want to succumb to the number one lifestyle disease because you don’t want to take medications is life-changing motivation.

Changing your associations around food is a powerful way to create long lasting eating habits. The words we say to ourselves shape our identity. If we alter the way we speak to ourselves, with specific words and phrases, such as “I eat to keep my body healthy and free from disease,” or “I eat foods that I know will give me long lasting energy,” we are much more likely to see changes in food behaviour.


So why is it so difficult to change eating behaviours?


Changing eating habits should be intuitive:

Scrabble tiles spelling intuition

We are under the misconception that because food is readily available it should be easy to change our eating habits - The “Just do it” mentality. Sometimes, this message comes from doctors! I can’t count the number of patients I meet in pharmacies who have been told to change their eating habits by their health care professionals with no further guidance.


For most, it is an uphill climb with hidden rocks jutting out to trip us up at our weakest moments, offering only the meagerest rest places and involving a lot of tears and body aches.


BUSTED:

Changing eating habits is a new skill.


A skill is a LEARNED and DEVELOPED power.


One of the hardest things for any human to accept is that change takes time. Our current habits are a result of years of conditioning. But for some reason, we expect that when we decide to change, change should happen instantaneously. If that was the case, eating one stick of celery a day in addition to everything else we ate would be enough to burn enough calories to keep us all lean and healthy and fighting fit.


If you read that statement and laughed incredulously, you’re on the right track. It’s a ridiculous sentiment.


Change takes time. Habit creation involves multiple mental processes. Your feelings, values and brain have to line up to acknowledge the action as a positive change. The brain then orders the formation of a neural pathway. By repeating the food action, the neural pathway becomes weathered. Over time, the brain decides, “okay, this is a well travelled path, I had better pave it, and add a myelin sheath to form a tunnel, so we can speed down this route with minimal energy and time.” Now the magic is happening! Once these neural works are in progress, we are well on our way to creating an ingrained habit.


A great way to get help with this is to have a coach. Coaches guide you to understand what works best for you. They act as accountability partners. They cheer you on when you might feel like you’ve had a slow day. Another valuable team member is a dietitian, who study for years to understand how food affects the body.


The key to making a new skill a habit is repetition, repetition and more repetition. I repeat, the key to unlocking this skill is repetition.


This leads us to the next difficulty.


Feeling overwhelmed:


a dismantled lego woman

When you decide to change your eating habits, you likely dive headfirst into the process with gusto. You shore up your defences by buying loads of veggies and fruits, throw out all the junk food you can find and buy a fancy-pants new water bottle, something sparkly and Swedish, brandishing it about like a knight with a new sword. You proclaim your good intentions to the world with a great instagram post and a winky face, feeling like a herald with trumpets preceding your great announcement.


Two days later, you’re frantically searching the cupboard for any crumb of a cookie or chunk of chocolate that you might have missed in your pantry purge. That failing, you probably sink to the floor crying, Why, Why, WHYY! (this could also happen internally.) Probably you feel like Elphaba in Wicked, singing “No good deed goes unpunished, sure I meant well, well look at what well meant diiid,” with haggard eyes and green smoke billowing around you and despair seeping from your every pore.


A week later, you’re whistling down the street because you’ve gone back to your old, comfortable habits, and you’re okay with it. For now.


The other common reason for overwhelm is information overload. Access to the internet means there are now millions of people claiming they know the best diet, evidenced by the multitude of different diets that now exist.


BUSTED:

Making too many changes at once is a surefire way to invite overwhelm in. Making small, incremental changes over time is a much better way to learn a new skill. These add up to create a big impact, without triggering our fear and uncertainty filters. As well, making small changes can build self-trust, which leads to confidence in our ability to change.


Eric Edmeads, the founder of Wildfit, has a pretty cool take on changing food habits. He focuses on adding in the good stuff, rather than just taking out the bad stuff. He cites a study where they looked at the vitamin C levels of two groups of people, one who have taken all the junk food out of their diet, and one who have kept their junk food levels the same, but increased their fruit and vegetable intake. The vitamin C levels of the first group were significantly less than the second group! Astonishing, right?


Once one habit has become ingrained, add another habit in.


Some other habits could be:


  • Drinking a glass of water before each meal, to increase your water intake, slake your thirst (which is a common sign that is often mistaken for hunger) and improve your satiety.

  • Adding hidden vegetables into your meals and snacks.

  • Eating high sugar foods in the first half of the day, to give your body enough time to use the energy they provide.

  • Eating mindfully - no distractions in the forms of phones, TV’s, books and even at the beginning, conversation.

  • Changing your environment, by keeping the foods you don’t want to include in your diet out of sight and in hard to reach places.

I like to think of changing food habits in terms of Taylor Swift. Eating well once is like going to her Eras concert. There’s hype, you feel exhilarated and you come out singing at the top of your lungs. Changing your habits is like learning the words of every song she ever sang. Make your food habits a “love story and baby, just say yes”.


To address the information overload, I invite you to remove yourself from the echo chamber you may have created with social media. Before making any food decision, research it thoroughly to find out what downsides it might have. Be cynical about claims that “this is the only diet you’ll ever need!” Pay attention to your body and what it might be telling you.


Lack of time


a cartoon man running frantically carrying a briefcase

Father time, you are the most abused creature of the imagination! Planning for healthy eating can be a time consuming task, and often the alternative of eating out is just easier at the end of a busy day. Busy professionals, mothers and people with a hectic social calendar often find that stress of having to fit in meal planning can be overwhelming, frustrating and lead to a lot of food waste.


BUSTED:

  • The introduction of meal preparation kits has been life-changing for many people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, meal kit subscription sales rose up to 60%! The kits come with all the ingredients required to make a particular meal, minimising wastage, cost and time of grocery shopping.


  • Meal planning automatically leads to healthier food habits, because you are mindful about what is going into your food. You can easily adjust your food habits to any budget and size.

There are several ways to go about it.

  1. You grocery shop one day of the week, cook an entire week’s worth of meals one day of the week and eat the rest of the week with no worries about what to cook the next day

  2. You utilise freezer space and that fancy slow cooker to make batch meals, freezing portions for later use.

  3. You have a go-to recipe book that you can use to quickly whip up dinner while also building confidence in your cooking abilities. This option can lead to daydreaming about being the next Masterchef.

  4. You play Overcooked enough that your cooking skills go up in your estimation. You immediately go out and buy a chef's hat.

  • Including a time-margin (a buffer of time required for admin, preparation and the like) into your day can be an effective method to change your eating habits.


  • Involve the family. If you have a partner, children or housemates, make it a group activity! Bonding over amazing or disastrous meal preparation can be a great way to increase quality time while still paving your habit change roadmaps. The theory of reasoned actioned developed by Madden, Ellen, & Ajzen in 1992 includes an element of perceived social norms along with personal attitude, which can strengthen the likelihood of change. So bringing others into the journey of behavioural change towards eating can be a really strong motivator.


(Just beware of the Overcooked effect, which will have someone burning the soup, one person yelling at others, one person who has no idea where to be, and one person running around in circles in a corner)


All or nothing attitude


Ever heard of the last supper effect? It’s the pre-weight loss weight gain that occurs because of the little devil inside your head that says, “tomorrow we dine in hell. So tonight, eat it all, eat it all NOW!”


There is an insidious perception that accompanies changes in eating habits. No mistakes allowed.


For any other new skill, there is a grace period to allow for adjustment of technique. But when it comes to eating habits, we are unforgiving towards ourselves. We berate ourselves for any lapse in judgement. Chastened, we resolve to try harder, pulling on the reins of our willpower and relying on pure motivation to get us through.


So where did this perception come from? Perhaps it snuck its way in through the years of trauma we accumulated from being admonished for making errors. Or maybe we’ve tried and failed so many times that the thought of having a small temporary lapse in judgement is heart wrenching. It could simply be that eating is so integral to our survival and day to day living that there are so many opportunities for mistakes to occur, leaving our history peppered with black marks.


An all or nothing mentality is quite dangerous when it comes to changing eating habits. It contributes to yoyo dieting, shame spirals and secretive behaviour, all counter intuitive actions in the habit game.


BUSTED

Change is a process. (I’m repeating this because repetition is necessary for habit formation!) Take your time, adjust for mistakes. Being curious about what went wrong, why you might have taken a small detour can be hugely beneficial to your mental state going into the next food decision.


Change is a process. Using visualisation techniques or visual aids to remind yourself of your progress can be helpful. My personal favourite is visualising myself crossing a raging river whenever I feel shame or guilt rise within me, reminding myself that I am only halfway across, so I still have ages to go.


a south asian woman looking out over a river

Change is a process. At some point you will slip and experience setbacks. This can be especially true around events that centre upon food - Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving for our American friends, Diwali for our Indian friends.

Having clarity around what you want your eating habits to look like from the get go can give you a compass to guide you through these setbacks. Writing down the exact eating habits you want to cultivate means you can measure your success more clearly. Some examples of this include:


  • Having no sweets after dinner

  • Eating no sugar

  • Eating some sugar on special occasions

  • Eating only homemade foods

  • Eating vegetables with every meal

  • Eating protein with every meal

  • Having a rainbow in each meal

  • Eating to nourish your body


There are millions more, I’m sure.


Feeling trapped by deprivation


Dieting comes with the assumption that you cannot, under any circumstances, have the foods you love. Pizza, chocolate, soft drinks, chips are all banned substances. Restriction rubs our brain filters the wrong way. Restriction sends jarring alarms to the danger, fear and uncertainty filters and causes the brain to send STOP signals all throughout the body. You can probably override those signals with willpower, but willpower is a finite resource, and depleting your willpower can be stressful and exhausting.


Using it to overcome multiple mental obstacles can have rebounding consequences (such as eating an entire chocolate cake at the end of the day because you have spent all day trying to eat only salad. Think Bruce Bogtrotter from Matilda).



BUSTED:

Eating healthy does not mean giving up foods you love. It just means changing the way you look at food. It means applying the principle: “make the unfamiliar familiar.” We will look at some examples below


  • Low carb pizza made with cauliflower and almond meal is a great way to increase your vegetable intake while still enjoying the classic italian flavours

  • Having cocoa instead of hot chocolate, or using dark chocolate to make your hot chocolate. This can be bitter to begin with, however, the more you try it, the more your tastebuds will adapt and you will begin to find the sweeter alternative a little too sweet for you! It takes up to 10 days for your tastebuds to adjust.

  • Make your own chips! Using potato skins reduces waste, but you can easily just mandolin a potato, put them on an oven tray and bake them to your desired crispness. You can also use many other vegetables, such as beetroot, parsnip, kale and even broccoli!

  • Soda water is a great alternative to soft drinks. They come in multiple flavours now, and are delicious ways to get flavour and increase your hydration levels.


Changing your subconscious messaging around food is a powerful strategy to resolve the feeling of deprivation. By changing the way you speak about them to yourself, you are slowly eroding away at the ingrained notions you have about them. For example:


  • “I can’t live without chocolate” becomes “chocolate doesn’t give me the long lasting energy I need. Cacao nibs do, so I prefer these.”

  • “Ice cream is my comfort food” becomes “If I am feeling sad I like going outdoors to be in nature and the sunshine”

  • “I eat as fast as I can because I grew up in a household of fast eaters” becomes “I take my time eating because I spent so much time and effort making this delicious food and I want to savour every bite”


Hypnosis is another tool that can be used to affect subconscious messaging. Marisa Peer, a world renowned hypnotherapist, has a product specifically designed for changing eating habits. Check it out here. I am not an affiliate, but I have personally tried this with great success.


Gamifying your food routines - 4 actionable steps to make changing your eating habits fun!


In the previous post, I outlined the work of renowned gamification expert Yukai Chou. To summarise, Chou created a 8 point framework called Octalysis in which he outlines the elements needed to create a fun experience. The elements he identifies are: Epic meaning, empowerment, unpredictability, social influence, loss and avoidance, scarcity, ownership, and achievement. According to Chou, the presence of at least one of these elements is crucial for making an activity engaging and enjoyable. So let’s see if we can add these into the journey for changing our eating habits.


Level 1: Clarify your What and Why


Complete this sentence stem


My ideal food habits are:


Write down as many things as you can think of. Make them skew positive - things you WANT your habits to be. Be specific. Write the statements in first person perspective: “I eat 5 serves of vegetables per day and enjoy the taste and feel of freshness in my mouth.”


Add in your WHY. What is the purpose for you to eat well? What meaning does it create for you? Do you want to be able to travel the world and try exotic foods, so eating well at home means the ultimate health for your travel plans? Do you plan to create your own health business for underprivileged peoples around the world, and need to experiment with different foods to come up with an ideal plan? Imagine you are the hero of your own game, and your one task that will change your entire game is that you have to come up with a healthy eating plan to nourish and sustain your character. What would that be? This is the stage where we are adding epic meaning to your eating habits.


Now, own your eating habits. They are yours, no-one can take that away from you. Create a visual aid to display proudly in your home. A vision board, a progress chart, a checklist. You can use an app to track your habits. Add images that represent your goal eating habits. The pictures you see in your head and the words you say to yourself make up your identity, so the idea here is to constantly reinforce the identity you want to take on.


Level 2: Reward yourself


Rewards in this area of habit formation should NOT be food related.

Choose anything else. Buy a great piece of clothing or accessory you’ve been eyeing for ages. Splurge on a great restaurant. Organise a games night to give yourself props.


Keep a progress bar handy, either on your phone, as a chart, or in a notebook. As you reach certain milestones, like completing 4 weeks of actioning your habits, pick your reward and go celebrate in style! For extra points, design your progress bar as a vegetable - my personal pick would be something like Mr Celery below.



a cartoon celery with a smile and progress bar


Some milestones could be:


  • Adding 5 serves of vegetables into your diet everyday for 2 weeks

  • Having fresh food of every colour of the rainbow everyday for 1 week

  • Drinking 8 glasses of water consistently for 2 weeks

  • Choosing fruit over dessert everyday for 1 week

  • Taking lunch to work each day for 1 month

  • Finishing all the groceries in your fridge

  • Successfully meal prepping for 1 week


Take your reward and skip gleefully off into the sunset, enjoy and then get ready for the next challenge!


Level 3: Experiment with the process


Be curious, change it around, find what works for you. Try new recipes, try new cooking techniques, new shopping techniques. Let your creative juices flow! Challenge yourself to try 1 new thing a week. Some examples are:


  • Ordering fruit and vegetable boxes that save un-supermarket-worthy produce from being discarded, and resolve to use all the ingredients in them. Good and Fugly and Funky foods are two such companies in Aussie, what are some of the ones in your hometown?

  • Choose a recipe mogul and try to recreate their picture perfect recipes. This one is great if you’re an Instagrammer. Show the world your food art

  • Challenge yourself by setting a budget and figuring out how to create a fancy meal for $20 (or whatever your budget is)

  • Try different dietary choices on different days! For example, Meat-Free Monday, Fruity Friday, Lean and Green Sunday. Explore recipes you would usually avoid, and be curious about what you discover.

  • Travel through your tastebuds. Choose a different country each week, and make recipes exclusively native to that country.

Be flexible. Rigidity causes breakdowns. Flexibility allows you to bend the rules. If you aren’t able to follow the guidelines you’ve set for yourself for one meal, make adjustments and move on. Have a system for reviewing your current strategies, like a battle plan to decide which manoeuvre worked, and which probably needs to be scrapped.



Be kind to yourself! Catch the moments you berate or shame yourself, and practice changing the script and tone of voice. Saying “it’s okay” to yourself is an incredibly powerful thing. It gives you permission to be flawed and brings an element of authenticity like no other. Review your food day at a time when you are alone and have time to really be mindful of how you speak to yourself.


Remember (say it with me now) change is a process!


Level 4: Find like minded people and do it together


Build a community of people who are in the same boat as you, and ride the waves of change together.



  • Build an accountability group to share fun stories, kitchen messes, and wine

  • Post your meals on your socials. Who knows, you might inspire a few people to join you!

  • One of the best ways to utilise social influence is to make your commitment and apply a monetary consequence to it! Share it with a few close friends. One of my close friends did this by promising $100 to 5 friends if she ate sugar in 90 days. She successfully quit sugar, and I had to regretfully remove my $100 handbag from my shopping cart.


YOU WON! The end.


So there you have it! A comprehensive guide to changing your eating habits, complete with beliefs that hold you back, belief-busters and techniques to fun up your health. Let me know which ones you try in the comments below! Bonus points go to those daring adventurers who try ALL the techniques listed in the post.




Disclaimer: This article is not meant for people with food disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia or binge eating disorder among others. As a pharmacist and coach, my expertise is limited, and I am only able to provide generalised advice. If you are experiencing one of these conditions, please schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional to discuss the treatment options, both pharmacological and non-pharmacological, that would most benefit you.



References:









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