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Why Healthy Habits Are Overrated

Shannon Harvey

This year I set myself an ambitious goal to be eating a completely whole-food diet by the end of the year. At a time when experts are increasingly concerned about the impact of junk food on our health, I wanted to see if was even possible to learn to cook everything from scratch while leading a busy life as a working mother of two young children.

With the customary zeal that accompanies every well-intentioned “New Year New Me” resolution, I signed up for an intensive cooking course, gave my pantry a makeover, planted seeds for a fledgling herb garden and invented a meal-planning system involving colour coded folders and a label maker.

I knew the endeavour would require a great deal of time and unconventional thinking but gave myself an 8/10 chance of achieving my goal. After all, I’m a health journalist, who writes a blog that keeps me accountable and I’m motivated to eat well because a highly-processed western diet is implicated in association with my autoimmune disease.

Five months later, I now give myself a 2/10 chance of eating entirely from scratch by the end of the year.

So what happened between early January and early May that threw me off course? In short; broken habits.

Our habits are the automatic things we do without thinking after we've been triggered by a situational cue. The more we repeat the behaviour, the more automatic habits become. Brushing our teeth before bed, checking our phone when we wake up, a daily bowl of breakfast oatmeal and a Sunday night pizza; are all examples of unthinking habits that form over time, with repetition.

Researchers believe that almost 50 percent of our behaviour is unconscious, which is why they’re so interested in understanding how habits can nudge us towards healthier living. For example, 90 percent of people who successfully exercise regularly are in the habit of doing so because they’ve been triggered by a particular location or specific time. Dieters wanting to lose weight are also more likely to succeed if their focus is on food habits rather than any specific weight-loss diet.

But for all the promise that comes with understanding the mechanics of our unconscious OS X, if it’s health behaviour that we’re wanting to change, there’s a massive design flaw in the system. It turns out, without the specific environmental, time-related or social cues that trigger our habits, the system can go offline and become entirely unstable.

A recent study of 1200 people in Denmark found that 12 percent of people who’d done all the hard work establishing a gym-going routine throughout the year, fell off the wagon never to return, simply because of an Easter break in which the whole country takes five days off.

I can completely relate to the Danish not-so-gym-junkies. My recent Easter break, which involved spontaneous weekends away, family celebrations and free-spirited holiday adventures with my kids meant all my whole-food ambitions went down the bunny hole. My newly minted, colour coded recipe folders stood no chance against the multi-generational rituals of over-indulgence that once marked the end of a 40-day fast but now only signify the beginning of the end of almost every new year resolution, everywhere.

Fortunately, while it’s likely that our unconscious instincts, patterns, and behaviours account for 50 percent of what we do, this means the remaining 50 percent must come from our conscious, rational, and intentional goal-directed side.

I’ll spend the next week or so getting my healthy eating habits back online and picking up where I left off. Hopefully I’ll soon feel more optimistic about achieving my whole-food goal by year end. Although, based on the current state of my herb-garden start-up, I have a long road ahead.

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