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Ingrained Eating Habits Are Hard to Change, Studies Find

Article author photo. Timi Gustafson, RD This featured post is by Timi Gustafson, RD. You can follow this blogger @TimiGustafsonRD.

Americans may be better informed about matters of diet and nutrition than ever before, but that does not necessarily change their behavior, according to a number of studies, including several conducted by the restaurant industry. Although many popular chain restaurants are trying to give consumers healthier alternatives to their traditional fares, the better-for-you stuff doesn’t sell very well.

For example, McDonald’s reports that sales of its least caloric items remain flat. “Although the chain devoted one-sixth of its advertising time to salads, they make up 2 to 3 percent of sales, and don’t drive growth,” said Don Thompson, the company’s president and CEO, in an interview with the New York Times.

Consumers are not trying to do something for their health when they eat out, let alone when they go to a fast food place. They want to indulge and get the biggest bang for their buck. That’s what they expect, and the industry is happy to comply.

Fast food also sells well because it is filled with fat, sugar and salt, ingredients that can trigger a sense of comfort and satisfaction and may even be addictive.

And it is not just the food itself that proves irresistible for some, but also the act of indulging. Especially in times of stress, which in the lives of many people is nearly constant, we tend to fall back into old habits we have picked up over the years, some of which may be unhealthy and destructive.

Experiments have shown that high levels of stress and fatigue can bring back once-established routines and make us act as if on autopilot. Scientists Wendy Wood and David T. Neal of Duke University found that both good and bad habits can be mobilized in stressful situations, but that willpower almost always loses out.

“Willpower is a finite resource. In the face of multiple stressful stimuli, our willpower wears out and it takes time […] to recover,” said Neal in an interview with CNN. “If you’ve grown up with bad habits or formed them later in life, yes, the phenomenon is that it’s a net negative for you. If a majority of your routines are unhealthy, then lacking willpower is really a problem. It becomes a double whammy because you are forced more into those patterns.”

These findings confirm what behavioral psychologists have known for a long time, namely that stress experiences and eating patterns are closely related. When stress is unrelenting (a.k.a. chronic stress), craving rich food can become an almost natural response. And if these responses become habitual, it can be increasingly hard to break them after some time.

To overcome detrimental habits and replace them with better ones, Wood and Neal recommend changing the environment. For example, many of our reactions are triggered by visual cues. If they can be avoided, half the battle may already be won. “There is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind element here,” said Neal.

With the nearly ubiquitous presence of fast food places, that may not be an easy task. But packing a nutritious lunch at home or keeping some healthier snacks in the car may help prevent some spontaneous missteps. Also, intentionally changing one’s daily routines to disrupt established behavior can be useful.

Unfortunately, we are not aware of many of our habits, and they must first be brought to our attention. The good news is that by reexamining them, we can regain a lot of power and start anew.

Timi Gustafson, RD, is a clinical dietitian and author of the book, The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun, which is available on her blog, Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D. Follow Timi on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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