Eating Habits: The Definitive Guide

A guide full of Tips and tricks to develop better food habits that stick.

Healthy plate

This is the ultimate guide to developing AMAZING eating habits.

So if you want to:

  • Stick to your diet on the long run
  • Kick bad food habits
  • Feel better in your own skin

Then you'll love the highly actionable tips from this guide.

Let's dive in.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Will Durrant

In this guide you’re going to find out why you eat the way you eat and what you can do to change it.

Women running downhill

It’s no secret that your food habits can help you improve your health and well-being. [1]

The food we eat can help us live longer and improve our mood. [2]

Most of us know how a healthy lifestyle with enough physical activity and a balanced diet can help us prevent disease and improve the quality of life. [1, 2, 3]

Yet, as soon as hunger kicks in, we tend to grab the first thing we can find on the shelf.

Our response is simply a habit.

And as you’ll find out, your brain performs a habit for a good reason...

The good news is, you can change your habits anytime.

With the right tools, you'll be able to improve your diet and your life.

To get the most out of this article, download the free sheets by entering your email in the sidebar, or simply grab a pen and a paper.

Let’s start!

Chapter One: Understanding food habits and learning to see

If you want to change your eating habits, first, you need to understand what eating habits are.

By understanding our eating habits, we can learn to read our body’s signals and use some basic habit jiu-jitsu to reshape our body and mind.

What is a habit?

A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. [4]

In other words, our brain performs habits on autopilot.

Our brain automatizes processes to use more of our head-space to think about other things.

Think about it.

When you first learned how to drive, the task required a 100% of your mental effort. Changing gears, pressing pedals and turning the steering wheel while the car is driving at 50 mph was probably overwhelming.

Now, after you’ve been driving for years, you don’t even have to think about all these actions. You have more head-space for maintaining a casual conversation or planning a date.

After you perform an action for hundreds or thousands of times it becomes a habit. It gets branded into your subconscious mind. [5]

habits embedded in a brain

So, how long time does it take to form a new habit?

One study found that the average time to build a habit was 66 days with a range of 18–254 days. [6]

Eating habits are exactly the same as any other habit.  Many of our eating habits take roots in our childhood. [7]

What is an eating habit?

The term eating habits (or food habits ) refers to why and how people eat.

Which foods they eat, with whom they eat, as well as the ways people get, store, use, and discard food. [8]

Let's break it down to get a better understanding of how habits work

The anatomy of a habit

Every habit consists of 4 stages:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response/Action
  4. Reward
The four stages of a habit
I first saw this model in one of James Clear's articles. He was heavily inspired by Charles Duhigg and Nir Eyal. Check out his website to learn more about habits

Here’s a simple example:

  1. You feel hungry (Cue)
  2. You want to eat (Craving)
  3. You eat a pizza slice (Response)
  4. Your brain releases dopamine (Reward)

Main takeaway:

Once you start repeating a routine of behavior, it forms a habit allowing your brain to work on autopilot while thinking about other things...
The more you repeat a habit, the stronger the connection in your brain becomes. [5]

Prompt one: The habit scorecard

The habit scorecard
You can download a free template by entering your email in the sidebar.

In the previous chapter, you learned how habits work. Now it’s time to snap us out of autopilot. We’ll do a quick exercise that will lay down the foundation for our self improvement journey.

Later on, we’ll use this card to reshape our eating habits.

Take a pen and a paper, and write down all the things you almost certainly do every day.

For example:

  • I wake up
  • I turn off the alarm
  • I check Facebook
  • I put on my gym clothes
  • I brush my teeth
  • I put on my shoes
  • I work out
  • I come home
  • I take off my clothes
  • I take a shower
  • I put clothes on
  • I make a cup of coffee
  • I make a bowl of cereal
  • I go to the toilet
  • I scroll on Instagram for a few minutes
  • I pack my computer
  • I go to work

The list goes on.

Map out your whole journey.

Once you’re done, it’s time to learn how to change our food habits

Chapter Two: How to improve our eating habits?

To change our food habits easily, we can use this simple four step formula:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

To make it easier, simply add the words “how to” in front of the steps to make a question.

  1. How to make it obvious?
  2. How to make it attractive?
  3. How to make it easy?
  4. How to make it satisfying?

Step 1: How to make it obvious?

To make a cue obvious there are two simple methods you can use:

1. Habit stacking

After I complete [current habit], I will [new habit].

Habit stacking works like this.

Pick a habit that you’re already doing and use this habit as a cue for a food habit you want to perform.

After I complete [current habit], I will [new habit].  

For example:

  • After I put my coffee mocca on the stove, I will start making a smoothie.
  • After I wash the dishes, I will grab an apple.
  • After I open the fridge I will ask myself what would be healthy to eat.

You get the point.

This simple method worked wonders for me and many others…

The best part,

it doesn’t have to be bound to eating habits. It’s equally useful for any other habit you want to build.

Simply stack the habits together and repeat, repeat, repeat until it sticks like sweaty underwear.

Prompt Two: Habit stacking

Take your habit scorecard and simply add new habits to the ones you already have.

2. Environment design

Put veggies and fruits on a visible spot

Environment design is in my opinion the most powerful tool for reshaping our eating habits.

Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life. Be the designer of your world, and not merely the consumer of it.-James Clear

Make all the positive cues as obvious as possible.

For examples:

  • Put all your veggies on eye-height so it becomes the first thing you see when you open the fridge.
  • Put your sweets on top of the closet so you need a chair to reach them or avoid having them at home completely.
  • Always keep a basket with fruits on your kitchen table so it becomes the most obvious snack in the kitchen
  • Paste your habit scorecard on the fridge so you can see it every time you visit the kitchen

Main Takeaway

The first step is to make obvious cues. You can do that through habit stacking or by designing your environment. All you have to do is increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative cues. [9]

Step 2: How to make healthy food attractive?

This is a though one.

How can a broccoli compete with a mouthwatering cover image on a frozen pizza packaging?

Dull broccoli image

How about this?

Colorful dish with broccoli

Much better.

1. Supernormal stimuli - Make it look sexy

You can make your food look much sexier by avoiding monochromatic schemes and bringing up the bright colors of your veggies.

The more attractive an opportunity is, the more likely it is to become habit-forming - James Clear

However, keep in mind attractiveness is not only about the looks. It’s also about the feeling you get after a meal.

2. Mindful Eating - How do you feel after a meal?

Mindful eating emoji

How do you feel after eating a pizza?

Almost everyone loves the taste of pizza. However, most people feel tired, heavy, bloated and sleepy after they eat one...

Now if you compare that with the feeling you have after eating a salad, there’s a HUGE difference.

After eating a chicken salad, you probably feel much more light and vigilant.

So, another way of making better eating habits more attractive is to be mindful about the feeling you get after a meal. [10]

3. Temptation Bundling

After I complete [habit I need to do], I will [habit you want to do].

This one is very similar to habit stacking.

Simply pair an action you need to do with an action you want to do.

After I complete [habit I need to do], I will [habit you want to do].

For example:

  • After I wash the dishes I will eat three nuts
  • After I finish working I will grab an apple

Main Takeaway:

To make healthy food more attractive, make the colors pop out, be more mindful about the food you eat, and pair the habits you want to do with a habit you need to do.

Step 3: How to make healthy eating easy?

At some point of your life, you probably experienced this.

You would decide to eat healthy. For a week or two, everything would work out well, and you become really excited about it. You tell your friends and family about your journey.

And then..., life gets in the way. You skip a meal here and there and suddenly you find yourself stuck in your same old patterns.

How do can you break out of this? How can you avoid falling into the same old trap?

The answer is simple.

Make it EASY for yourself.

In order to make habits stick, you need to make it as easy as possible for yourself. At least until your becomes part of your identity.

A great way of making it easy is to break the habit down into baby steps.

1. Break it down into tiny sized bites

Jesus meme: You must learn to crawl before you can walk

Ok, Jesus probably didn’t say that. It’s a proverb 😁

The best way to make a habit stick is to make it incredibly easy to show up.

Think about a goal you have, and break it down into the tiniest bits or… bites.

Make it so easy that you can’t find an excuse for not doing it.

For example:

If your goal is to become vegetarian, start by eating one apple daily after you drank your coffee.

After 2 weeks, you can add a smoothie to your morning routine. When you start performing the habit on default, you already covered one daily meal.

In a month or so, make it a rule of thumb that 60% of every meal needs to consist of veggies.

Soon, grabbing veggies will become your default mode, and giving up meat won’t be hard for you.

The habit of reaching for veggies becomes part of your identity. You become the person who always eats veggies.

You no longer have to think about it...

2. Meal prep

food prep

Two recent studies with more than 40.000 participants found that people who spend more time preparing meals are more likely to have healthier diets. [11,12]

The reason why we often reach for unhealthy options is convenience.

It’s convenient to put lassagne into a microwave.

It’s convenient to grab a pack of chips from the pantry.

So, how can you make a healthy diet as convenient as possible?

One of the easiest ways is to prepare meals in advance.

Cooking twice as much food doesn’t take twice the time.

Make huge portions of food, and simply put some of the food in food containers either in the fridge or the freezer.

You’ll be amazed how much easier it you can make it for yourself by doing that.

For example, make a huge portion of salad (without dressing).

Salad with insects
Mexico inspired meal worm salad

Later on, throughout the week, all you have to do is make a dressing of your choice.

It takes literally 2 minutes make yourself a meal.

Just make sure to buy glass, ceramic, or stainless steel food containers.

Over a hundred studies have been published tying plastic compounds to various health problems. Avoid plastic containers even the ones labeled as BPA-free.[13][14]

Main Takeaway:

You can make it easy for yourself by breaking a food habit down into tiny bites. Cooking twice as much food doesn’t take twice the time. Make healthy eating convenient with food prepping.

Step 4: How to make healthy eating satisfying?

In his book, author James Clear wrote about something he calls the Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change:

What is rewarded is repeated, what is punished is avoided. - James Clear

Taking that into consideration. How do we deal with instant gratification?

Use habit jiu-jitsu to fight your inner instant gratification monkey

monkey

Why is instant gratification such a strong drive? Why do we reach for junk food which is high in sugar and fat if we know it’s bad for us on the long run?

The answer probably lies in evolution. Our bodies were made this way. [15]

For most of the time, instant gratification was the way to go. It wasn’t until recently that we started living in a world of delayed gratification.

Just think about our ancestors.

You feel hungry (cue), you want to eat (craving), you eat a fruit or a mammoth stake (response), you feel satisfied (reward).

Our brains evolved to link sugar to energy, nutrients and water. Think fruits.

At the beginning of my journey, it was hard to stick to better eating habits. Although I liked all the health benefits that came with a better diet (who doesn’t?) I found it incredibly hard to stay consistent.

One of the biggest reasons was — I sucked at cooking. Eating better wasn’t rewarding in almost any sense.

I didn’t know how to make healthy food taste as good as pasta carbonara. What’s more, I would make the same recipes over and over again.

If you eat the same dish every single day, your brain starts producing less and less dopamine every time you eat (sugar is an exception here). Meaning, your meal is becoming less and less rewarding. [16]

That’s why it’s important to introduce variety into your diet.

Luckily, there is google!

To make it easier to stick to your diet, it’s important to:

1. Make it Delicious

It is a lot easier to stick to better eating habits when the food provides a strong sensory signal.

You’re way more likely to grab something that tastes good than something with a boring taste and texture. [17]

Lucky for you, there are millions of online recipes to choose from.

2.  The mint technique

Give yourself rewards for your accomplishments.

After eating a healthy meal, give yourself a mint.

Remember the cardinal rule of behavior change: What gets rewarded gets repeated.

Use this rule to outsmart your brain. By stimulating your reward system with a mint or a kiss from your spouse, you can build an artificial connection between a habit and a reward.

This way, you’ll be more likely to repeat the habit next time.

If you ate healthy for a week, buy yourself a ticket for the cinema.

This way, you’ll always have something to look forward to.

Chapter Three: How to get rid of bad eating habits.

pasta dish

Remember the habit loop from chapter one?

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward

To get rid of bad habits, simply try to invert everything we learned. Simply change the adjective to its acronym.

  1. Make it obscure
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it hard
  4. Make it unpleasant

Ask yourself:

  1. How to make it obscure?
  2. How to make it unattractive?
  3. How to make it hard?
  4. How to make it unpleasant?

For example:

1. How to make it obscure?

If you can’t get your hands off of sweets, simply don’t buy them. This way, when you come to the kitchen, you won’t have an obvious cue to trigger your bad habits.

2. How to make it unattractive?

You can make eating sweets unattractive by repeating to yourself how sugar is degrading your brain and ruining your health.

3. How to make it hard?

Since you don’t have any sweets at home, if you get your sweet tooth,you’ll have to go to the supermarket to buy sweets. Which is hard compared to grabbing the first thing you have in your fridge.

4. How to make it unpleasant?

Reflect on the way your body feels after a sugar binge. You probably feel full, bloated and tired.  And also, reflect on all the bad stuff that happens to your body when you overeat sugar.

Chapter four: How to make your eating habits stick?

A chameleon catching a grasshopper with its sticky tongue

It’s not hard to start a new routine. We do it all the time.

Yet, how many of these routines become habits? Not often, that’s for sure.

1. Don’t skip a day

How many times does it happen that you stick to an eating routine for a while, you start feeling really good about yourself, and then life simply gets in the way.

You go out on holidays, you stop making your own meals and your routine falls apart. You come back and you find yourself stuck in the same old patterns.

One of the main reasons why it’s hard for us to develop a habit is due to the fact that we start skipping days.

Life will inevitably get in the way. There will always be days where it will be impossible to stick to your habits.

If there’s anything I want you to take with you from this long-ass article it’s this:

Don’t skip a day, and if you do, NEVER SKIP TWICE.

It’s ok to say yes to your lovely grandma when she offers her god-like cookies that she’s been perfecting every day for the past 60 years.

Sad granny
This is how my grandma would look at me if I say no to her.

The most important part is to get back to your healthy routine the next day.

Eating one unhealthy meal once in a while is perfectly fine as long as 90% of your meals are healthy.

2. Find an accountability partner

Camel friends

In winter 2017. My colleague Lucas and I started going to the gym. Lucas was really busy at the time, and he wouldn’t find the time to go to the gym.

At the time, I was reading The 4-hour Work Week. I read about the principle of loss aversion.

Loss aversion refers to people's tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains: it is better to not lose $5 than to find $5.

I decided to pitch this idea to Lucas.

We agreed that we’ll have to train every second day until the summer, and whoever skips a workout has to give the other 7$.

As a proof, we would send each other a snap from the gym.

On extremely busy days, we agreed on training for at least 15 minutes.

This approach was great for 2 reasons.

Besides having the principle of loss aversion work in our flavor, we also became insanely competitive.

There was a sense of pride involved and skipping a workout became embarrassing.

As a result, we only skipped one training each throughout the whole 6 month period.

James Clear wrote in his book that writing and signing a contract with your accountability partner makes you even more likely to stick to your routine.

Now, you may ask yourself, how can I use this principle to improve my eating habits.

It’s simple.

Find someone who’ll hold you accountable, and send that person a photo of every meal you have.

If you loose, you’ll have to send the person money.

To put more weight on your shoulders, you can write about your goal on social media, and send a photo every day.

We’re all scared of public embarrassment.

Use your fears for your own advantage 😉

Part Five: Summary and conclusion

What is a habit?

A habit is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously.

Once you start repeating a routine of behavior, it forms a habit allowing your brain to work on autopilot while thinking about other things...

Every habit consists of 4 stages:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response/Action
  4. Reward

How to improve our eating habits?

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

How to make the healthy option obvious?

  1. Habit Stacking
  2. Environment Design

How to make healthy food attractive?

  1. Supernormal stimuli - Make it look sexy
  2. Mindful Eating - How do you feel after a meal?
  3. Temptation Bundling

How to make healthy eating easy?

  1. Break it down into tiny sized bites
  2. Meal prep

How to make healthy eating satisfying?

  1. Make it delicious
  2. Give yourself a reward

How to get rid of bad eating habits?

To get rid of bad habits, simply try to invert everything we learned. Change the adjective to its antonym.

  1. Make it obscure
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it hard
  4. Make it unpleasant

How to make your eating habits stick like wet underwear?

  1. Never miss twice
  2. Find an accountability partner

Remember that good habits compound over time.

Improve your life slowly, one percent a day. You’ll be amazed of how much you’ll progress after a year or two.

I hope this guide will help you improve your eating habits, your health, your mood and longevity.

As you might have noticed, this article was heavily inspired by James Clears book Atomic Habits.

After reading the book, I finally managed to make my habits stick and become part of my identity. I can highly recommend reading and using it to improve your life one 1% at a time.

Hit the share button if you found it useful.

Also, let me know in the comments

Which eating habit are you trying to quit or acquire?

Looking forward to reading your answers :)

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