Bad food habits are like paddling against the current

Is it possible to lose weight without diet or exercise?

The short answer: yes, but only if you change your habits around food.

The longer answer? If you change your habits around food, you’ll lose weight, but those new habits can make any diet or exercise program *substantially* more effective than if you’re fighting bad habits.

Think about it like paddling a canoe on a river.

If you’re paddling upstream, against the current (i.e. bad food habits) you’ll have to work really hard to make any progress. And if you stop paddling, you’ll be carried backwards.

But if you’re paddling downstream, with the current (i.e. good food habits), you’ll make progress quickly, and with less effort. 

That’s what changing your food habits is like.

These “paddle downstream” techniques I talk about below are the same ones that my student Christine used to lose 39 pounds.  I discussed some of them in my TED Talk “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit”, which was the 4th most viewed TED talk of 2016, viewed over 10 million times.

Losing weight by improving your food habits doesn’t require self control.

It only requires your attention.

Keep reading for a step-by-step approach:

Step 1: Understand What You’re Up Against

We all have to eat to stay alive. As long as we don’t eat too little or too much, and our food is mostly healthy, this isn’t a problem.  But as you may have discovered, it’s not just about how much we eat, but what, when, and how we eat that determines our success.

Much of our social lives revolve around eating –we eat lunch with people at school or work, dinner out with our friends, and snacks whenever we get together.  We eat when we’re not hungry, don’t stop eating when we know we’re full, and we eat too much food that’s not good for us. We eat when we’re lonely, depressed or stressed out.

So why are there millions of diet books, special meals to help us lose weight, and a new diet craze every 2 years? Because for a lot of us, we’re no longer in control. We can’t stop eating when we are full.  Many of us don’t have a healthy relationship with food because of stress, or other habits that we’ve formed around eating. We’re addicted to sugar or slaves to our eating habits. That’s what you’re up against. Everything around and inside of you is setting you up for failure.


Step 2: Understand your habit loops

I’m an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist, first at Yale, and now at Brown University. As I worked with people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as addiction to food, I learned about one of the key underlying mechanisms that drives our behavior – the Habit Loop.

It seems pretty simple, but it drives so much of our behaviors, especially around food.

First, something happens in your life.  It could be good or bad. It’s called a trigger.

For example, what does it feel like when you eat a good piece of chocolate or some really delicious ice cream?

Part of your brain says “oh, that feels good!  Do that some more!” so you can keep that good feeling going.

So your brain lays down this memory.  “Oh next time you want to feel good, you should eat some ice cream!” Now you start to associate ice cream with feeling good.  And this is when craving starts. The next time you see ice cream, you start to crave it, even if you aren’t that hungry.

The more you do this, eating leading to craving leading to feeling good, the more this gets laid down as a habit loop.

This works with negative emotions, too. Have you ever been yelled at by your boss, a friend, or a family member? How does that feel? Not so good, is it? Just like we want to have more good feelings, we want bad feelings to go away as quickly as possible.

So what do we do when someone yells at us? We go out for ice cream and we feel better! This too lays down a memory. If you’re stressed, have some ice cream! You’ll feel better.

The more you do this- get stressed which leads to craving which leads to eating ice cream (or chocolate or whatever your comfort food is) the more this, too, becomes a habit.

What’s tricky about habit loops is that the more you practice these behaviors, the more automatic they become.  Over time, you’re not even consciously choosing these actions anymore.

However, you can become aware of these habit loops and consciously step out of them by recognizing a trigger before it starts taking you for a ride. I’ll describe exactly how to do that later on.


Step 3: Know What You Are Eating

What I’ve learned from years of research into habits, addictions and neuroscience is that food is perhaps one of the most addictive substances on the planet.

According to research over the past decade, sugar may even be more addictive than cocaine. No kidding.

In fact, when rats are given a choice between sugar and cocaine, guess what they prefer? That’s right — the sugar!

Think about that for a moment. Those sweet treats you wish you could avoid may be MORE ADDICTIVE THAN COCAINE!

And yet, unlike cocaine, sugary snacks are available in every grocery store, gas station and vending machine across the world. Kids get them as part of their school lunches, and you probably have some of this dangerously addictive substance in your pantry or freezer right now.

But it’s not just sugar — a lot of the food we eat has been engineered to be as addictive as possible.

There’s a reason that Doritos are a certain bright orange color and the Lay’s potato chip slogan is “Betcha can’t eat just one” — they’ve deliberately engineered their chips to trigger the biggest possible dopamine response in the brain.

The food scientists and food engineers understand the habit loop better than anyone, and specifically design foods to trigger cravings.

But now that you know how addictive certain foods can be you can bring in awareness to what and how you eat. I’ll go into how to do this now.


Step 4. Eat Mindfully

When you don’t feel in control around food, your first reaction is probably to clench up, to try harder, to try to regain control by any means necessary.  And while that reaction is natural, it’s exactly the wrong thing to do.


The key to regaining control isn’t buckling down and trying harder. The key is to loosen up and simply pay attention to how you are feeling.

Paying attention – without judgment – is often described as being mindful. By being mindful, you can learn exactly what your body needs and change your habits around eating without effort and willpower.


I’ll explain how to do this in a minute


Think about how you eat meals these days. Which of the following applies to you? You eat on the go, in the car, standing up, sitting at your desk, in front of the TV… just about anywhere and  any way except slowly and with awareness.

It’s no wonder we scarf down food and overeat. We don’t pay attention to the process of eating.

The key is to slow down and bring awareness in. For one thing, it takes 10-15 minutes for the “I’m full” signal to make it from your stomach to your brain. Slowing down will help you notice that feeling of fullness naturally, and as a result decrease the amount of food you eat in one sitting. By bringing awareness to the moment you stop when you’re full, not because you think you should stop but because your body is saying, hey thanks I’m full.

But it goes further than that. Eating mindfully means paying attention to every part of what you’re eating… how it looks, how it smells, how it tastes, and even how it feels in your mouth.

Awareness is a skill you already have. The key is this – really pay attention to each bite of food. And then also pay attention to how your body is responding to each bite.  Is the third potato chip as satisfying as the first? Or is it just an automatic response triggered by the sensation of eating the previous chip?

For example, one of my clinic patients used to bond with her daughter each evening by watching television. And mindlessly eating an entire bag of potato chips as she did. When she implemented this step -paying attention as she ate, she realized that she could be satisfied after only the second potato chip. I think of her as my two potato chip patient.

The next time you sit down to eat your favorite snack, take out just one chip, one cookie, or just one spoonful of ice cream. Place the rest off to the side. Pretend you’re a food critic at a fancy restaurant, and you want to write a review of this bite of food. What are you going to say? How would you describe it? What does it look like, smell like, what’s the texture, what’s it really taste like. Take your time and most importantly, pay attention. See what you discover.

Step 5: Learn To Distinguish Real Hunger And Emotional Hunger

Many of us eat out of habit instead of hunger. We think we’re hungry because craving food. In reality we may simply be stressed, bored, fatigued, sad or mad, and somewhere along the way we learned to associate these emotions with hunger. This is called hedonic or emotional hunger rather than physiologic or real hunger.

For many of us, our emotions are so mixed up with hunger, that it is hard to tell the difference at this point.

So, how can we tell when we’re really hungry and not just “hungry out of habit”?

Back to awareness.

When was the last time you ate? Was it one hour ago of 6 hours ago? Are you experiencing any strong emotions? Are you bored?  Are you feeling a craving for a particular kind of food, especially one that might be more of a reward food like chocolate?

There is no perfect answer – it is possible to be legitimately hungry AND be craving a treat, but by paying attention to how we feel, we can start to tease out when we really need calories and when we’re just filling an emotional void.

And if you’re not sure, try eating a small healthy snack. [Even better if you eat it mindfully.]  Wait 5 or 10 or even 15 minutes and check in with your stomach again. Still hungry? If not, it’s likely that you are just stressed about something.

Step 6: Learn to recognize internal triggers before they take you over

You often eat due to unpleasant internal states, such as boredom, discomfort or sadness. Remember the habit loop? Our brain has learned “feel boredom”, “eat”, “feel better.”

Our bodies are constantly producing these feelings, but we’re too busy watching YouTube or typing out an email or whatever, so we ignore them. But those inputs are still there sending signals to our brains, and those sensations if we’re not paying attention to them, can trigger eating habits without us knowing it.

But, by checking in with your body on a regular basis – ideally multiple times throughout the day – you can learn to identify these sensations before they trigger habitual behaviors or excess eating.

Let’s do this right now. Drop into your body. What are you feeling? What is your emotional state? What did you notice?

I’ll use boredom as an example.

What does boredom actually feel like in your body? Where do you feel it most? Sometimes it will surface as some restlessness. For me its in my belly and chest. Once you notice where it is get a really good sense of what it is like, so you can become really familiar with it.

The goal isn’t to make the sensation go away or distract yourself from whatever is there – the goal is to become aware of the sensations before they trigger cravings and emotional eating. Over time you’ll become much more familiar with those triggers that automatically drive mindless eating. The more you do this the easier it will become, and the less you’ll be driven by those automatic triggers and behaviors.


To bring it all together:

  1. Understand what you’re up against – your environment and your psychology are rigged against you.
  2. Understand habit loops
  3. Know What You Are Eating – certain foods are engineered to be addictive
  4. Eat Mindfully – pay attention while you eat – see what you discover about everyday foods that you hadn’t noticed before
  5. Learn to distinguish real hunger and emotional hunger
  6. Learn to recognize internal triggers before they take you over

Now that you know how to lose weight without diet or exercise, I want to turn it over to you.

Did you learn something new from this post? 

Which step from this guide do you think will help you the most?

Is it learning to differentiate real as compared to emotional hunger? Or did you think understanding your habit loops is more helpful? Either way, let me know by leaving a comment below.

If you want to learn more about how to overcome emotional and binge eating, you’re welcome to sign up for my 7-day email course on overcoming emotional, stress and binge eating.  It’s free.

Photo by Julien Lanoy on Unsplash