My heart skips when someone tells me they want to give up chocolate for a month. No, not just chocolate, they reflect. They are going to foreswear all desserts. The phrase “please don’t do that” presses against my lips, but I don’t let it out. Sometimes, it’s better to let people experiment and reflect on their experiences rather than tell them what you think outright.
When it comes to giving up on a food or food habit that doesn’t serve your overall goals, I often club people into two categories. The first is someone who can go “cold turkey,” and the second is someone afraid of “cold water.” I know this sounds wild, but stay with me. The “cold turkey” people are few and far between. They are people who can give up a particular habit or food simply by choosing to. These people can jump into a cold swimming pool and tell the shivering onlookers, “it’s not so bad once you get in.” You may have one reckless enthusiast who dives right after hearing this reassurance, but most people will shiver, shake, and recoil in shock as they ease themselves into the cold waters. These are whom I call the “cold-water people”, and they make up the vast majority of folks. These people need a moment to process a dramatic change like this, slowly at their own pace.
Giving up something, particularly a food associated with self-soothing, relaxation, or a form of celebration, will be challenging for some people because, over time, consuming it has become a habit or a ritual. For instance, choosing to have a glass of wine with dinner or a venti frappuccino at Starbucks every morning is often a subconscious decision. It may surprise you that our brains, despite their reputation, don’t like to think.
Habits can be challenging to break because most people aren’t even aware of them, explains an article on the mental health website Psychology Today. After all, that is the point of a habit. At first, you must consciously think through the decision to stop at Starbucks and determine what to order. Over time the practice will become automatic. As Psychology Today pointed out, some habits don’t serve your overall goals and health, such as reaching for a cigarette every morning or overindulging in treats and alcohol.
So how do you change a deeply ingrained food habit, without resorting to extreme measures?
Bring awareness to the table
There is a saying that “you can’t change what you don’t know.” As I mentioned in the coffee analogy above, the longer you practice a habit, the more automatic it becomes. To break a habit, you have to bring awareness to it before you can change it.
One great way to bring awareness to our food choices is to ask ourselves questions, and an excellent opportunity for that is when we are experiencing a craving. Our automatic response may be to grab something to eat without stopping to think if we are hungry or experiencing a desire for food. Asking yourself if you are actually hungry or simply eating out of a desire to eat will help you with step 2.
Based on what you discover from step 1, create some healthier alternatives you can choose when the next craving strikes. That may mean stocking your fridge with flavoured yoghurt instead of ice cream or replacing cookies with whole-wheat crackers. The important part is to make a new habit both an easy and a satisfying choice, writes James Clear, author of Atomic Habits ( a must-read). If your alternatives are easy to choose and delicious, the switch will feel easier to implement.
The most successful people are the ones who can delay giving in to a craving. You may be wondering if you have the willpower to wait. It has nothing to do with will and everything to do with a system.
Teaching yourself the self-discipline to delay a craving can be very simple. I call it “pause, distract, moderate.”The first part of the strategy, “pause,” means setting a timer on your phone for approximately 10-15 minutes after your craving strikes. During this time, you will “distract” yourself by finding something else to do, like pick up your laundry, call a friend or take a walk around the block. The final step is “moderate.” Once your timer goes off and you still have a craving, try only having three bites, of what you’re craving. The next time a craving hits, try adding two minutes to your “pause” time to build your endurance and self-discipline.
Also read: Can you exercise when you are pregnant?
And finally, I don’t believe most people can successfully give up something for their entire life. I also think that the happy-middle ground we should strive for in our relationship with food is a positive, peaceful one. Having a positive and peaceful relationship with our foods means understanding how our food choices affect our goals and making a little room to indulge to keep your sanity.
A planned indulgence is a way to still have the food you love, just in the quantity that makes the most sense. That may mean limiting your venti frappucino to once a week on a Friday to celebrate the end of a long week, rather than having one every day. Whatever it is, plan out your indulgence, and get excited about it. When you learn to master this balance for yourself, you may be pleasantly surprised that you don’t have to go cold turkey after all.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach