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Breaking Bad Food Habits

Gluten-free, day 26.

It’s been that long since my last bowl of pasta and the realization that the unbearably itchy Mystery Pox I’d fought intermittently for a couple of years was probably a reaction to gluten.

Me, the queen of the PB&J foldover. A pizza addict. A bread fiend. A cookie monster.

Gluten intolerant.

My initial horror at this idea was tempered by relief at having identified (fingers crossed) the Mystery Pox that had four doctors scratching their heads while I was scratching everything else. So at first, I was giddy. I read up on gluten-free living, found recipes, made my first batch of (delicious) gluten-free brownies.

Then I made another batch of brownies, as a consolation prize. Because I started realizing, one favorite food at a time, how much I was giving up. I entered a period of mourning that continues to this day. (Today I remembered funnel cake.)

I’m sure I’ll get over it. It’s only day 26.

In a way, I’m lucky. The memory of the Mystery Pox is powerful motivation for me to stay on the wagon. And I’m lucky that gluten sensitivity is all the rage these days, so finding gluten-free products is pretty easy.

But still, I’m in the nitty gritty of trying to change old habits and that’s not easy.

I’ve never really thought about the “habit” in “eating habits” until I went poking around in a database and found a little study on snacking titled, When Planning Is Not Enough: The Self-Regulatory Effect of Implementation Intentions on Changing Snacking Habits

Habit. Of course. We don’t decide to  eat unhealthily. We just do it because that’s what we’ve always done.

In related news, a major study out of Harvard followed more than 220,00 men and women over 20 years and found that topping the list of foods related to upward weight creep over time is potato chips. The grand pooh-bah of habit-forming snacks. You eat one chip and suddenly the bag is empty.

We often choose what we eat with no more thought than we give to switching on the light in a room we’ve entered hundreds of thousands of times. Or how we brush our teeth. Or the way we put on our socks and shoes. (Both socks then shoes? Or one foot at a time?)

The other day at a party, somebody put a bowl of pretzel mix next to me, and I automatically grabbed a handful and started eating, forgetting all about the Pox.

Grab and eat. How do we break eating habits that aren’t good for us?

In the study on snack habits, researchers try to tease apart the interaction between strength of habit, motivation, and whether participants’ “implementation intentions” were consistent with their “regulatory focus pride.”

“Regulatory focus pride” asks if you are generally more interested in succeeding, or in not failing.  In this study, “implementation intentions” are whether participants were trying to stop eating unhealthy snacks or to start eating healthy snacks.

It appears that people with “strong unhealthy snacking habits” particularly need to have their implementation intentions and regulatory focus line up together. People who think in terms of success should try to eat more healthy foods; those who simply try not to fail should aim for fewer unhealthy foods.

I fall in the second camp and am definitely better at giving up foods than bringing in new ones. Out of sight out of mind works for me. As long as nobody puts pretzel mix within reach, I can control my bad habits. And when I eliminate something from my diet, eventually another, better, food drifts in to fill the void.

On the other hand, when I set out with an intention to try new foods, they invariably turn to science projects in the refrigerator. There’s some kale (healthy kale chips instead of tortilla chips!) turning to soup in my crisper drawer as we speak.

These days, each time a Pox-inducing eating habit tweaks me, I have to stop and think before I grab and eat. In mid afternoon, when my brain says “PB&J foldover,” I resist and throw together a smoothie instead. When I crave bread, a corn tortilla can substitute. (Quesadillas are just grilled cheese sandwiches, after all.)

It’s a good thing I’ve been trying to master mindful eating this year, because it suddenly matters more than ever. The first step to breaking bad eating habits is to pay attention to what and how you eat. Or, if you prefer, contract Mystery Pox. But I don’t recommend that.

Breaking Bad Food Habits

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Breaking Bad Food Habits. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Sep 2011
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