Habits: Out With The Old, In With The New

How many times have you mentioned to yourself, I need to stop eating those (fill in the blank) and start eating these (fill in the blank)? Successfully creating or changing a food habit takes a lot of intentional decision making. Sorry to pick on food habits, but a lot of us need to change a few bad ones and start good ones. How did those intrenched food habits, some to our detriment, come and stay liked a cupboard crowded with bags of chips?

Some are from childhood. Some we gather along the way. The older we get, the more difficult it is to let go of ones that don’t serve us well and start ones that do. Habits often become so ingrained that we keep doing them even though we’re no longer benefiting from them.

Understanding how you can change or establish a habit, may be your key to success. Most of our daily habits are automatic, serve us well, and make life move along smoothly. If we had to think about everything we did, we would go nuts so automatic is good. In psychology there are two systems: the automatic system that is uncontrolled, fast, and effortless and the reflective system that requires effort, awareness, and is slow. Responding to a text is immediately automatic while deciding to defer answering until later is more a reflective, intentional decision.

The Anatomy of a Habit
In the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains MIT researchers discovered a three-step neurological pattern that is the core of every habit. Step 1 is cue which is the stimulus to tell the brain to go into automatic mode and prompts the behavior to unfold. Step 2 is routine and is the behavior itself and the action you take. Step 3 is reward. It helps your brain determine if the habit is worth repeating. Recognizing cues, routines, and rewards is a first step in changing a bad habit and or starting a new one.

If you like chocolate chip cookies and see a plate of them, your response may be automatic. See them (cue) on the plate, grab one (routine), bite into the cookie (reward), yum! Your brain determines this reward is worth repeating again. Eat more cookies. The next time you see chocolate chip cookies your brain is expecting the reward. You reinforce the habit.

Immediate rewards like cookies are easily established. To stop this habit, reverse the steps. Remove the cue, break the routine over time by not buying or baking the cookies in the first place. Oh, so easy to say. It takes reflective thinking.

Delayed rewards are harder to establish, like realizing the benefits of a physical activity habit you don’t have and would like to have. More planning, more steps, and more time are required to get started before it becomes automatic. At some point in the effort, you may realize you are gaining additional rewards like enjoying healthy food, losing weight, sleeping better, and managing stress. Physical activity becomes important for many reasons that help reinforce it.

To understand the complexity of habits, you might want to read Atomic Habits by James Clear. His concepts apply to adopting healthy eating habits and becoming more physically active. For example

  • Ask: What is the purpose or my “why” behind changing eating habits? Better health, weight loss, managing blood sugar? How committed are you to change? What is your expected reward?
  • Ask: Is this a “want” or a “should”? Use a scale of 1 to 10 (strongest) to assess the strength of your intention. A want is always stronger than a should. If you feel a discrepancy in what you want to accomplish and what you really think you will do, evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. You may want to make modest habit changes at first.  Have a mindset that the new habit is worth developing enough that it becomes automatic. What’s in it for me and am I up for the task? A modest habit might be adding a salad to every dinner because you want to eat more vegetables and improve your diet.
  • “Keystone Habits”: Clear explains these habits are the larger ones you want to establish. Underneath a keystone habit is a series of smaller habits to change.
  • Repetition is key to establishing routine and reward. The reverse applies to undoing a habit.
  • Pick small habits that are easy to start, accomplish, and keep until they are automatic. Success leads to more success.
  • Think “environmental design”. Make the habit easier to accomplish because you’ve set up a cue that leads to routine. To change food habits, think of a stepwise process. Start with 1. Plan meals, 2. Make grocery list, 3. Only by what is on the list.
  • Surround yourself with people who will help reinforce the new routine. Engage your co-workers or family, including kids, in making new routines. Explain why. There will be less paddling upstream if everyone is on board.

Changing poor health habits takes resolve. Good habits lead to better health.

Recipe Tip: Grocery store roasted chickens are a quick way to get freshly cooked chicken.  The bones can be simmered in water to make broth.


1 roasted chicken or 4 cups cooked, cut in chunks

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, cut in 1/2-inch pieces

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 ribs celery, cut in chunks

4 large carrots, peeled, cut in chunks

4 Yukon Gold potatoes or 1 pound, unpeeled, cut in chunks (season with salt and pepper and some of the Mrs. Dash seasoning)

4 cups chopped cabbage

2 tablespoons Mrs. Dash Original Seasoning

1 cup frozen corn

1 cup frozen peas or edamame (orTrader Joe’s “Soycotash” with edamame, corn, red pepper)

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Pull chicken pieces off the bones. Set chicken pieces aside. Add carcass and juices to a 7-quart or larger stock pot. Add 4 cups water to have a flavorful broth. Cover pot. Gently simmer for 2 hours. Strain broth from bones; set broth aside. Salt broth to taste.
  2. In the stock pot heat olive oil. Sauté onion, garlic and celery until onion is translucent and tender.
  3. Add broth, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and Mrs. Dash seasoning. Cover and simmer about 30 minutes until carrots and potatoes are tender, but still somewhat firm. Add chicken. Cover and gently simmer just to heat chicken. Stir in corn, peas or edamame, salt, and pepper. Heat to simmer. Serve hot.

*Makes 3-1/2 quarts

Written by: Mimi Cunningham, Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, Diabetes Educator

Mimi Cunningham is a dietitian-nutritionist living in Eagle, Idaho. Her nutrition specialty is diabetes education and management. She loves writing about embracing healthy eating as fun plus a route to good health. She serves as a member of the Idaho Foodbank board of directors addressing food insecurity as a challenge to good health for Idaho children and adults.

On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Mimi Cunningham for her contribution to our community website and commitment to healthy living and aging.