We are what we eat. Everything we eat comes down to good nutrition. You can’t get good nutrition out of a bad diet, no matter how hard you try; but you can develop bad eating habits without even realizing it. Here are some bad eating habits that can be hard to break—but are worth the effort.
Eating healthy starts with some basic knowledge and changes in your attitude towards food. But it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Just taking small steps—like adding a salad (full of different color vegetables) to your diet once a day or switching from butter to olive oil when cooking—can make a difference. And when you’re ready, you can take more steps towards eating healthy.
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Below are 11 Bad Eating Habits You Can Break for Good
Boredom eating, a term used to describe mindless munching when you’re not hungry, is one of the most common eating habits that can seriously derail your weight-loss goals. “Contrary to popular belief, boredom eating is a habit—not an act of hunger,” says Laura Cipullo, RD and author of Women’s Health Body Clock Diet. “Often we eat because we are tired or emotional and not in response to true physical hunger.”
“Boredom eating is usually a sign of stress or anxiety,” says Stephanie Clarke, RD. In fact, boredom eating could be a symptom of depression or another mental health condition. If you find yourself regularly turning to food for comfort or distraction when you’re bored, it might be time to seek help from a professional.
Eating out of habit
- Keep a food diary. This is the first step towards breaking any bad eating habit, including over-eating. The food diary will help you identify your triggers and patterns of overeating, so that you can start to change them.
- Get a healthy snack. When you feel hungry, instead of reaching for a bag of chips or other less-than-healthy snacks, try some healthier alternatives such as fresh fruit, nuts or even hummus.
- Don’t eat in front of the TV or computer screen. Being distracted when you eat makes it much harder for your body to register that you are full, which means that it is easier to overeat without realising it. Similarly, eating while stressed will trigger the release of stress hormones which may make it more difficult to recognise when your body feels satisfied after eating – again causing you to overeat without realising it!
Not paying attention to your food
You can start eating more mindfully by practicing a few simple tasks: Look at your food before you eat. Notice the color, texture and shape. Smell it. Take a bite, but then put down your fork or spoon and chew slowly, savoring the flavors and textures of what you are eating before swallowing it. Once you’ve swallowed, repeat until you feel satisfied. Pay attention to the signals that your body is giving off while you are eating. Listen to those messages instead of ignoring them in favor of just finishing everything on your plate because that’s what you’ve always done. When you get full, stop eating—even if there are still leftovers on your plate or if all of your friends are still chowing down on their meals too! You don’t have to finish every single item on your plate in order to be polite, healthy or “normal.” Eating slowly will help soothe any anxious feelings about not being able to finish all the food in front of you because it will take longer for those feelings to come up in the first place!
Getting too caught up in calories
You know how important it is for you to stay aware of your calorie intake, but if you’re like the average person, you may be focusing on it too much. If your main concern is the number of calories contained in any given food item and not where those calories are coming from, then you could be seriously sabotaging yourself.
Calories really matter, because they measure the amount of energy that food gives our bodies to do stuff (like breathe, move around and think). But thinking about them as a singular rallying point for deciding what to eat can be super misleading. For one thing, not all foods provide the same amount of energy per calorie; plus, there are other factors that contribute to weight gain or loss besides the number of calories consumed or burned off during exercise.
If you have a habit of only looking at a nutrition label and counting up calories to make decisions about what goes into your grocery cart or onto your dinner plate, then this tip is especially for you: The source of your food’s calories matters just as much as their quantity! While 100 calories from broccoli may look similar in size to 100 calories from an Oreo cookie (less than half a sleeve!), their effects on our bodies and health will actually be vastly different.
Waiting to eat until you’re starving
Do you wait until your stomach is growling before you eat? This can backfire when it’s time to have a meal, because your real hunger may cause you to overeat at that point in an attempt to satisfy it. Instead, eating regularly throughout the day will avoid this problem and help control your appetite.
There is a similar concept that applies to stress: Don’t let yourself get so starved for food or attention that you overeat (or overspend) when the opportunity finally arrives. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, take steps to calm yourself down by practicing deep breathing techniques or doing some relaxing activities like reading or watching TV — anything but eating!
Making food sacred
- Why it’s a bad habit: You wear your emotions on your sleeve—and so do your food choices. You eat when you’re stressed, lonely, tired, depressed, happy and…well, pretty much all the time. And because you’re looking for instant gratification at mealtime, those meals are rarely healthy or satisfying.
- How to break this habit: First things first: If you don’t shop for food wisely, you can’t prepare nutritious meals easily. Put a few simple foods in your kitchen and use these shopping strategies so that every time you open the pantry door you see something good inside.
- What to do instead: To start eating more mindfully, slow down! “Every culture except ours has a ritualistic way of consuming food,” says Gail Frank, Phd., RDN., professor emeritus in the department of nutrition at California State University at Long Beach. She recommends eating five small meals throughout the day and sitting down to eat each one without any distractions (that means no TV). “While eating,” she says, “you should look at what’s before you; notice its color, shape and smell. Cut up your food into bite-size pieces and put your fork down after each bite.”
Not eating enough at meals
You may think that not eating enough is a good thing, but don’t be fooled. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, not eating enough can cause issues including hunger pangs and cravings, overeating at the next meal (and possibly overindulging in unhealthy foods), feeling tired or lacking energy, and losing too much weight. If you want to break out of this habit, try filling up on protein-rich foods like lean meats and beans, which will help keep you full longer.
“If your calorie intake is low and your energy output is high (when exercising), it’s easy for your body to get confused about hunger cues,” says dietitian Maya Feller, R.D., author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook ($8; amazon.com). In fact, she explains that when calories are scarce (because you’re not consuming enough during the day), it can actually lead to extreme hunger at night because your brain triggers cravings for food in order to prevent starvation.”
Denying yourself certain foods
The first piece of bad advice that’s worth mentioning is to avoid eating if you’re not hungry—that is, if you’re only eating because you want to consume food rather than participate in the ritual. While it’s not exactly a crime to eat for pleasure, our bodies are designed to fend off starvation and minimize us eating too much at once. If we know what will happen if we give into those impulses, we can resist them without feeling deprived.
Here are some other helpful tips:
- Make sure you eat something every three hours or so during the day. Even though overeating isn’t technically a “bad” habit, it will hit us harder when we haven’t eaten since breakfast or lunch. If that means going out to eat instead of ordering takeout, go ahead. The easiest way to enjoy foods like pizza and burgers without breaking the bank is by making them yourself with healthy toppings like avocado or spinach. It’s also a great idea to keep chips (the kind with artery-clogging salt) in your pantry as an emergency backup convenience foods that don’t require any preparation—just heat up your oven so you can make a batch of homemade croutons from cauliflower. The best thing about having these foods on hand? You don’t have to feel guilty about chowing down! It’s one less thing for your body to resist!
Never making exceptions
This is the mindset that if you fall off your eating plan, it’s game over and you might as well throw in the towel. But guess what: There is no one on the planet who has never cheated on a diet. Young or old, male or female, thin or overweight—we’re all human beings and we’re allowed to make choices we regret. That is how we learn from our mistakes and improve our resolve. But when we tell ourselves that it’s all or nothing, we are more likely to end up completely derailing ourselves by binging without abandon.
A much better approach for those of us who err on the side of restriction is to adopt a flexible dieting approach—which basically means allowing yourself some wiggle room in terms of food choices while still staying close to your goals most days of the week. One way to do this is by following an 80/20 rule: Eating clean 80 percent of time (that doesn’t have to be exact) while deviating 20 percent (again, not exact). This approach allows you to enjoy foods you would normally avoid but also keeps most meals on track with your nutrition goals so that over time you can reach your desired weight and body composition.
Never rewarding yourself
“Rewarding yourself for healthy habits is a good idea,” says Dr. Bazilian. “But it should be an occasional habit, not something you do every day.”
For example, if you hit the gym three times in one week and would like to reward yourself with a slice of cake at dinner on Saturday night? That’s fine! If you think that hard workout means you can eat anything you want all weekend long? Not so much.
An important note: When you do treat yourself, make sure your reward isn’t too big — or too frequent — to support your healthy lifestyle realistically. “If the reward is too big, then it won’t feel worth the effort,” says Dr. Bazilian. “Something like a small scoop of ice cream or a square of chocolate can feel very rewarding and still be within reasonable calorie boundaries.”
Always keeping “just one” treat around the house.
Lurking in your kitchen cabinets is a trap: that one treat you love to nibble on.
Whether it’s the box of cookies, bag of chips or jar of jellybeans that calls to you, we all have a hard time keeping “just one” snack in the house. The problem with this habit is that treats should be considered a special occasion food, not part of your everyday diet. That doesn’t mean you can never enjoy them; it just means you need to be smarter about how and when they are consumed.
The best way to avoid temptation is not to keep the treat around at all times. If there isn’t any lying around, then it makes it much easier to resist reaching for those empty calories when you get hungry between meals. If you are craving a certain food and want a small portion just once in awhile, buy single-serve snacks where possible so that they’re already portioned out for you (and won’t leave tons sitting around after). Or make your own treat by taking something healthy like popcorn and giving it an upgrade with sea salt and parmesan cheese—just remember the rule about moderation!
There are better ways to approach food than you might realize.
Food is more than just sustenance. A healthy diet does a lot more than keeping you from getting hangry—it can decrease your risk for diseases, improve your mood and energy levels, give you clearer skin and even help you live longer.
And yet when it comes to food, we’re often tempted to take the moral high road. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that eating bread makes us bad, or that skipping dessert makes us good. But our relationship with food shouldn’t be about morality—it should be about health and happiness.
If you find yourself beating yourself up for what you eat, there are plenty of healthier ways to approach food:
- Don’t make a big deal out of food
- Embrace moderation in all aspects of your life
- Eating less doesn’t mean feeling hungry less
- Food is not a treat or a reward or a punishment