4 Ways To Conquer Habit Hunger

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By Madeleine Ortiz

Being a creature of habit can sometimes be a good thing. We buckle up our seat belts without giving it a second thought, take our dogs for a walk at the same time every morning and always wash our hands before sitting down for a meal. But when it comes to snacking, sometimes our habits can be more powerful than our good intentions. Whether we’re hungry or not, we mindlessly open the fridge when we get home from work, munch on a bag of chips whenever our favorite show comes on TV or instantly crave something sweet after clearing our dinner plates. Psychologist Dr. Paul Davidson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts says this habit hunger is a common way many of us are sabotaging our weight loss efforts. Luckily, he’s sharing his best tips for overcoming habit hunger urges and sticking to our healthy plans. 

Scale Back Slowly 

We don’t get rid of habits overnight – especially ones that have been part of our lives for years so Dr. Davidson recommends “scaling back” instead of trying to give them up all together. He uses an example of a patient who is an avid coffee drinker. “I wouldn’t expect her to go from drinking 8 cups a day to nothing,” he says, “and you shouldn’t expect to go from eating an elaborate after-dinner dessert every night to nothing either.” Instead, he recommends that his coffee drinker go from drinking 8 cups a day to 6 and his after dinner dessert eater to go from a slice of pie with whipped cream AND ice cream to just a slice of pie with whipped cream. After a few successful weeks try cutting the habit in half, then in half again. “Doing it faster isn’t necessarily better,” he cautions. Most of the time, the slow and steady route is much more sustainable long term. 

Swap vs. Eliminate 

If your habit hunger is something you can’t simply “scale back,” then Dr. Davidson recommends trying a swap instead. “Incorporating a healthier option for is a big improvement,” he says. For example, if you crave a salty snack while watching TV, try swapping potato chips for salty roasted chickpeas or fava beans. If you’re a chocolate fanatic, try trading your usual brownie for a smoothie made with chocolate protein powder or a high protein/low carb chocolate bar. “There are so many options these days,” encourages Dr. Davidson. Explore some of the products at your grocery store or have a successful buddy recommend some more nutritious options they enjoy. You could even try making something yourself using recipes from websites  like skinnytaste.com or theworldaccordingtoeggface.com – two of Dr. Davidson’s favorite recipe resources. And most importantly, stick with it! At first, switching out your usual snack for something more nutrient dense might feel like an unfair bargain, but eventually, says Dr. Davidson, the new item will be just as satisfying to you as the old one.  

Choose a Happy Habit

One of the best ways to break a habit is to get out of the habit cycle, the routine that leads to the habit in the first place. If you always treat yourself to a milkshake at your favorite fast food restaurant after work on Fridays, try rerouting your drive home and planning a walk with a friend instead. Does watching the nightly news give you a sudden craving for popcorn? Switch to a news podcast while taking a bath or doing an activity like knitting or an adult coloring book. The more removed you can be from the original habit, and that includes the location it normally takes place, says Dr. Davidson, the more likely you’ll be able to avoid it. Just make sure your new habit is something you actually enjoy. “If you hate yoga,” he says, “it’s not going to feel like a satisfactory replacement for happy hour.” Instead try something that will make you happy, like calling a friend or picking out a new book at your local library. And if all else fails, laughs Dr. Davidson, there’s always brushing and flossing your teeth. You’re way less likely to mindfully reach for a snack when you’ve got the minty taste of toothpaste in your mouth, he says. 🙂

Know Yourself

Some of us will be the first to admit that scaling back on treats or eating crunchy carrots instead of chips just won’t work for us… and Dr. Davidson says that’s OK. If you know you’re not the type of person who can simply say no to a chocolate chip cookie because they ate a protein bar or keep out of the pretzels because they had a bath, do whatever you can to avoid bringing it home in the first place. The harder your tempting food  is to access, the less likely you’ll be eating it simply out of habit, he says. And that doesn’t mean you can never eat your favorite foods again, Dr. Davidson says he would never recommend that! He just suggests knowing your limits when it comes to having the food in your house or at your desk at work. That way, when you do eat it, it’s intentional and enjoyable instead of mindless and guilt inducing. 

Habits take time to form and even more time to change, so when working towards new, healthy habits, Dr. Davidson recommends not being too hard on yourself. Take it day by day and trust that eventually it will all get easier. And most importantly, he says, if it ever feels too impossible or overwhelming, reach out for support. Find a psychologist or other healthcare professional that can offer a listening ear, advice or even a treatment plan. Sticking with it, even when things get tough or fall off track a bit, will help your new, healthier habits become second nature, just as automatic as buckling your seatbelt! . 

To read more about the differences between emotional and physical  hunger, click here.

Watch this episode of My Weight Live to learn more about conquering habit hunger, click here.

To find a weight management physician in the United States near you, click here.

To find a weight management physician in Canada near you, click here.

To sign up for our free online email program to learn the science of weight management, click here.

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