6 Steps to Changing Bad Eating Habits

How to overcome unhealthy habits that are keeping you from losing weight and getting fit.

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Most of us are creatures of habit. We buy the same foods from the same grocery store, prepare the same recipes over and over, and live within our own familiar routines. But if you're serious about eating healthier and losing weight, you need to shake it up, change those bad eating habits, and start thinking differently about your diet and lifestyle.

The problem is that we get so comfortable in our ways that it's hard to give up those old habits.

"Many people are skeptical about changing their diets because they have grown accustomed to eating or drinking the same foods, and there is a fear of the unknown or trying something new," says John Foreyt, PhD, director of the Baylor College of Medicine Behavioral Medicine Research Center.

Even when you want to change, old habits die hard.

"Over time, habits become automatic, learned behaviors, and these are stronger than new habits you are trying to incorporate into your life," says Foreyt.

Even those who manage to change their bad eating habits can easily fall back on their old ways during times of stress. When you're feeling weak or vulnerable, automatic responses often override good intentions.

"Everything can be going along just fine until you hit a rough patch and feelings of boredom, loneliness, depression, or ... any kind of stress," says Foreyt.

Foreyt says tackling bad eating and exercise habits requires a three-pronged approach:

  • Being aware of the bad habits you want to fix.
  • Figuring out why these habits exist.
  • Figuring out how you'll slowly change your bad eating and exercise habits into healthier new ones.

Another expert notes that you're much more likely to be successful at changing your habits if you take things one step at a time. "Try to gradually incorporate new habits over time, and before you know it, you will be eating more healthfully and losing weight," says Keri Gans, MS, RD, American Dietetic Association spokesperson and a nutritionist in private practice in New York.

Eating a healthier diet may be intimidating at first. But once you see for yourself how good it makes you feel -- and how good healthy food can taste -- you have a better chance of succeeding. Over time, your preferences will change and cravings for bad-for-you foods will fade away.

6 Steps to Fix Bad Eating Habits

Here are 6 steps to help you get rid of your old, unhealthy habits and create healthier ones:

1. Take Baby Steps. Making small changes in your diet and lifestyle can improve your health as well as trim your waistline. Some suggestions from the experts:

  • Start each day with a nutritious breakfast.
  • Get 8 hours of sleep each night, as fatigue can lead to overeating.
  • Eat your meals seated at a table, without distractions.
  • Eat more meals with your partner or family.
  • Teach yourself to eat when you're really hungry and stop when you're comfortably full.
  • Reduce your portion sizes by 20%, or give up second helpings.
  • Try lower-fat dairy products.
  • Make sandwiches with whole-grain bread and spread them with mustard instead of mayo.
  • Switch to cafe au lait, using strong coffee and hot skim milk instead of cream.
  • Eat a nutritious meal or snack every few hours.
  • Use nonstick pans and cooking spray instead of oil to reduce the fat in recipes.
  • Try different cooking methods, such as grilling, roasting, baking, or poaching.
  • Drink more water and fewer sugary drinks.
  • Eat smaller portions of calorie-dense foods (like casseroles and pizza) and larger portions of water-rich foods (like broth-based soups, salads, and veggies).
  • Flavor your foods with herbs, vinegars, mustards, or lemon instead of fatty sauces.
  • Limit alcohol to 1-2 drinks per day.

2. Become More Mindful. One of the first steps toward conquering bad eating habits is paying more attention to what you're eating and drinking. "Read food labels, become familiar with lists of ingredients, and start to take notice of everything you put into your mouth," says Gans. Once you become more aware of what you're eating, you'll start to realize how you need to improve your diet. Some people benefit by keeping food diaries.

3. Make a Plan; Be Specific. How are you going to start eating more fruit, having breakfast every day, or getting to the gym more often? Spell out your options. For example: Plan to take a piece of fruit to work every day for snacks, stock up on cereal and fruit for quick breakfasts, and go to the gym on the way to work three times a week. "To say 'I am going to work out more,' won't help you," says Gans. "What will help is thinking about when and how you can fit it into your lifestyle."