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Healthy Eating Habits: One Non-Threatening Step At A Time

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Eating healthy day after day can be challenging, but recently a friend told me a story that illustrates the power of daily repetition to create new habits.

The friend, Emily, had broken her wrist and for five weeks wore an above the elbow cast. With her left arm stuck at a 90 degree angle, and having no lateral movement, Emily had to find a way to do most everything one-handed.

An Unintentional Habit

“For instance, I had to come up with a way to put my contact lenses in with one hand,” said Emily. “It was awkward at first, but after about a week I could pop my lenses in fairly easily.”

When Emily’s cast was changed to a below the elbow version, she still had limited range-of-motion so continued doing most things with one hand for another ten days—and looked forward to getting back to two-handed living.

“It’s funny, though, once the cast came off, and I started getting some flexibility back in my left wrist, I kept putting my contacts in using only my right hand,” said Emily. After doing it one-handed every day for over six weeks, it seems I’d created a habit that I continued to perform without thinking. I actually had to remind myself to use my left hand many mornings before I slid back into my two-handed contact routine.”

Small, and Non-Threatening

Emily’s story illustrates the behavior changing potential of repetition, and although she created a one-handed contact habit out of necessity, we can use the same principle of daily reinforcement to create new habits of our choosing.

However, it is the element of choice that makes creating the habits we want or need - versus habits we acquire out of necessity - more difficult. That’s why it makes sense for most of us to establish one new habit at a time by daily repeating actions that are small enough to be non-threatening.

Daily Repetition

Let’s say, for example, someone recovering from an eating disorder needs to start reintroducing healthy fats into their diet. This can be extremely anxiety provoking, but what if the individual finds they can tolerate one teaspoon of butter on a half slice of toast and makes it part of their breakfast every day for six to eight weeks. This daily repetition could begin to normalize the intake of healthy dietary fats.

Or, consider people who tend to eat fast, and consume more per meal than is healthy. To slow down and eat more consciously, they could turn off all phones, TVs, or computers at the start of each evening meal and set a timer for three minutes. For those three minutes these individuals might focus on the flavor of their food, and on chewing slowly. Once the timer goes off they are free to eat as they please, but the daily minutes of thoughtful chewing - over a span of weeks - will cultivate a more mindful approach to eating.

New Patterns

Continuous repetition of small, non-threatening steps can create or begin to create new patterns of thought and behavior. If the actions are small enough, they won’t provoke the resistance that often thwarts our attempts at change. So, although we may not be forced as Emily was to modify our behavior, we can choose to establish new, healthy habits without making ourselves anxious.

Source: Maurer, Robert, Ph.D., One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, Workman Publishing, 2004.
Photo credit: Yoni Lerner