identifying the habit loops

Shortly before someone from the FitBit forums told me about Intuitive Eating, I had read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Now, there is a lot of information in the book that I didn’t need, but the part about habit loops and what triggers them was very interesting. Since then, part of my commitment to breaking free of the stronghold of dieting (and self-image, self-worship) is to identify what triggers these negative behaviors, or habit loops.

I started by sketching some of my negative habit loops and identifying not just the trigger, but the perceived reward as well. Reward? Yes, every habit has a reward, otherwise we wouldn’t do them. Once we perform a loop enough times, that loop is really difficult to break. It’s like riding a bike. You don’t forget it. When you push off the ground you start pedaling and the bike is in motion. The same thing happens with a habit. Something triggers it, and we start “pedaling” automatically. We’re on autopilot.

A big part of eliminating the diet mentality habit loop, is in recognizing what perceived reward we get from dieting (or even thinking about dieting). I know, I know, I’ve talked a lot about the evils, but something in us believed dieting was a benefit… something in us liked it. Maybe it’s the false promise of being thin, maybe it’s the lure of stellar health, maybe it’s the feeling of being “in control”, maybe it was the sensation of a “new beginning”, maybe it’s the zing of excitement at the scale going down, maybe it’s just fitting in with every other woman on the planet… whatever it is for you, dieting has a perceived reward.

Of course, as is the case with all negative habits, there is a negative side. With dieting, the pendulum always (eventually) swings to the other extreme… binging. Apparently there are many studies that show this to be true. Dieters swing from famine to feasting… feel guilty and repeat the process. Dieting has physical, mental, and emotional side effects as well.

Have you ever heard of Dr. Ancel Keys’ Starvation Experiment from the 1940’s? If you haven’t, check out that link. It gives you an idea of what these men went through. Josie Spinardi’s book talks even more about the side-effects the men reported. I think it’s really interesting to note that a healthy caloric intake for these men was around 3,200 calories and starvation was between 1,500-1,600 calories. Um… By these standards, most dieters (especially women) are actually starving themselves. These men became obsessed with food. I tend to wonder if it wasn’t just the reduction in calories but also the restriction of what kinds of foods they were permitted that caused this preoccupation with food and their body image.

So, dieting does not benefit us afterall. Keeping this fact in mind just might keep us from running back to a man-made plan. But what about triggers? We aren’t in a study or experiment like those young men. We can choose what, when, and how much we eat. So what sets diet mentality into motion? Well, it could be any number of things. Identifying that, is a huge part of breaking free. Some of my triggers are: diet talk of any kind, overeating, snug clothing, media images, negative self talk, advertisements…etc. Knowing that these things can potentially set off my diet habit loop, I can be more aware when I encounter them.

Sometimes though, diet mentality triggers the opposite of famine… it triggers bingeing. While dieting and bingeing do go hand in hand, it can be it’s own habit loop too. I have found that my “bingeing” since I stopped dieting doesn’t really look all that much like my past bingeing episodes, as much as it looks like mild overeating. Yes, there is a difference. Bingeing reaches a point of being sick from being overfull… overeating is discomfort at being overfull.

All kinds of things can trigger the need to overeat. Dieting is a big one. Dieting creates a longing for whatever you are restricting (whether it be calories or certain foods). Eventually the dam breaks. Stress, strong emotions, circumstances, relationships… all of these things can be triggers. You can also have physical triggers like the smell of something yummy, or the act of sitting on the sofa watching TV. Identifying and defining the habit loop will help you figure out what’s going on and why.

I’ve mentioned my TV/munching loop and how I’m not addressing it directly just yet. Why? Because it is a deep one. There are multiple rewards intertwined in that one habit. I’m starting small by having a mental “cut off” time where I’ll go read in bed instead of continuing to watch TV. Do I do it every time? No, but I always try to have a book I’m interested in sitting on my nightstand as a way to entice myself into turning off the TV.

I’ve also started to focus on the things I don’t like about watching television… or that I don’t like about how I feel after watching television. This association has begun to make me feel dissatisfied with television in general. Because my evening munching is directly associated with television watching, this cuts down on the amount of mindless/non-hunger eating I was doing. Plus, I remind myself that people with adrenal fatigue don’t benefit from staring at a screen before bed… and do benefit from going to sleep at a decent hour. Then I think about how this habit loop affects my sleep and morning temps, and I usually choose to shut off the television and read till my eyes get heavy.

I know if I had made this a “rule” like:

“You cannot eat while you watch TV”, or…

“You cannot turn on the television or you’ll end up eating your weight in chips without realizing it”…

…if I had made it a rule, I know I would rebel. I know it would set off diet mentality, which would lead to “gasping for food” (Josie Spinardi) or gasping for television. Then I would likely binge on both (been there, done that). So, instead, I tell myself I can choose to do whatever I feel like doing, all the while really thinking about how the choices I make will affect me. I also ask myself what benefit I’m seeking. Usually I just want to relax and not think about anything stressful.

Very often, reading accomplishes this. And since I have not made a habit of eating in bed, I know it is very unlikely I will bring food upstairs with my book. If I do get hungry, I’ll have to walk all the way downstairs to the kitchen to have something (which is more involved than the short walk from the sofa).

So, figure out your habit loops and then interject subtle alternative suggestions for changing them. Not by making a rule, but rather by tapping into the reward you’re really after and what is triggering the behavior. My TV/food thing isn’t over, but I’m seeing it improve a little at a time.



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