Breaking Bad Habits

From the September 2004 edition of Dr. Fuhrman’s Healthy Times:

If you read Eat to Live, you have learned which foods are best for your body, you have acquired some great recipes, and you have the kitchen equipment you need to get started. So, all your problems are solved... Or are they?

Good first steps
Identifying the cause(s) of your problems, eliminating your bad habits, and learning what is necessary to reestablish great health are tremendous first steps. But they are only 50 percent of the overall solution. Before you can achieve true success, you must practice, repeating your new beneficial behaviors over and over until they become part of you. Repetition will make these positive actions feel more and more natural. Soon, these new good habits will make your previous bad habits things of the past.

Just as you cannot expect to develop a perfect tennis swing or learn how to play a musical instrument without both good instruction and a tremendous amount of practice, you cannot hope to transform your health without the ongoing process of putting your new knowledge into practice. Moving in the right direction, improving the way you eat, and learning how to handle social situations that encourage bad habits are all part of an ongoing process of healthy change. It is a process that requires time and effort and the ability to learn from mistakes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. It is not enough simply to “know” what to do. You need to do it. You need to practice preparing recipes and eating super-healthful meals until such time as they begin to satisfy your desire for pleasurable eating.

Developing skills
Anyone who has become accomplished at demanding activities such as sports, martial arts, and music will tell you that it can be difficult to learn new things. It is not easy to develop new habits, and there is no such thing as a quick shortcut to developing new skills and expertise. To eat as healthfully as you or I want to takes practice and perseverance.

When you do something over and over, it creates a pathway in the brain that makes it easier and more comfortable to repeat it again later. That is one reason why it is so hard to change. It can be really tough to get a person with ingrained bad habits to change. For example, I would rather teach someone who never played tennis before how to properly swing a tennis racket than to try to teach someone who has been playing for years and swings incorrectly. But while change is difficult, it is not impossible. What makes change possible is students’ strong desire and motivation to change, their willingness to be uncomfortable, and their determination to work on it until they get it right. The same thing is true with healthful eating.

The more you make healthful meals, and the more days you link together eating healthful foods, the more your brain will naturally prefer to eat that way. Your taste for healthful foods will develop. It has been shown that a new food needs to be eaten about 10 to 15 times for it to become a preferred food. The more days you eat healthfully, the more you will lose your addiction to unhealthful, stimulating substances; and with time, you will look forward to—and prefer eating—a diet that is more natural and wholesome.

Don’t get discouraged if you occasionally fall back into your old habits. This is normal when learning new habits. Keep working at it, because you will get better with more effort. Never give up. The only failure is to stop trying.

Powerful addictions
The more stimulating the habit, the worse you feel when you stop it. The more poisonous the habit, the harder it is to stop. Habits that are the most stimulating are often the most toxic; you feel ill and even depressed when you don’t imbibe. For example, cheese, salt, and chocolate are all highly addictive, and it takes a prolonged period of abstinence to beat these addictions.

Chocolate cravings are often episodic and fluctuate with hormonal changes just before and during the menses. Chocolate contains several biologically active constituents (methylxanthines, biogenic amines, and cannabinoid-like fatty acids), all of which can cause abnormal behaviors and psychological sensations that parallel those of other addictive substances.1

Sugar and caffeine, especially when mixed together, are highly addictive. Sugar withdrawal has been demonstrated to be similar to opioid withdrawal. Repeated intake of sugar creates neurochemical signs of opioid withdrawal, including anxiety and tremors.2

Salt addiction has developed throughout civilization in the last 5000 years, creating a worldwide epidemic of high blood pressure and resultant strokes. Besides fatigue, cravings, and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, salt use gradually deadens your taste.3 The more salt you consume, the more you lose the ability to appreciate the subtle flavors of natural food. As salt deadens taste, it makes you want more and more salt to get back some of the missing flavor.

Road to success
The first step to achieving dietary excellence, attaining your ideal weight, and enjoying excellent health is getting rid of your addictions. After that occurs, you will be free from prison and will find it easier to get on with the program.

Addictions make attempts at dietary modification more difficult. But the good news is that the withdrawal symptoms end in a few weeks. It only takes a few seconds of decision-making to win the battle, to decide to say an emphatic “no” to the addiction and “yes” to your new healthful diet and lifestyle. However, the ability to make the right decision consistently requires planning. You need time to prepare your environment so that you have good-tasting healthful foods around you at all times, to minimize temptation.

If you are going to succeed at turning around your health or weight, you will need to commit to a significant investment of time. There are no shortcuts when it comes to health. Five minutes a day is not enough exercise, and you will not protect yourself from illness unless you can prepare your own food and take responsibility for what food goes into your mouth. Of course, it is faster, easier, and more convenient to eat fast food and junk food and eat out in restaurants. But, this is what caused your problems in the first place.

When you plan out your week and design satisfying meal plans, you dramatically increase the probability that you will eat healthfully. Decide what you are going to purchase in advance at your two weekly shopping excursions and write down what you buy. Revise the list each time to ensure that you include things you may have forgotten and to exclude things that you did not like or could not finish in the 3-4 days between excursions. For example, increase or decrease the amount of lettuce if you could not finish it all, or ran out one day too soon.

To successfully achieve your weight and health goals requires some advance planning, plus the patience and determination to allow the time necessary for recovery and transformation. But rest assured, the results of your efforts will be richly rewarding. 1. Bruinsma K, Taren DL. Chocolate: food or drug? J Am Diet Assoc 1999;99(10):1249-56.

2. Colantuoni C, Rada P, McCarthy J, et al. Evidence that intermittent, excessive sugar intake causes endogenous opioid dependence. Obes Res 2002;10(6):478-88.

3. de Wardener HE. Sodium and hypertension.
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Comments (1) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Elijah Lynn - September 17, 2006 2:20 AM

Hey Joel, I also want to comment that the media (TV and Radio) have so much advertising for food that the more people watch and listen to commercials the more likely they are to think about unhealthy food.

You don't even realize it but you probably see a pizza on TV once every 15 minutes, and you never even know it but then later on you somehow think about pizza.

Basically I am saying that if you truly want to live healthy it will be a lot easier if you just stop watching TV and listening to the radio (commercial radio) altogether.

Elijah Lynn
Member of Dr. Fuhrmans Member Center

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