November 19, 2012

Breaking habits

You can pass by the cookies, cakes and candies that come with the holiday season. Here’s how.

You want to lose weight, but you can’t pass by the pastries and pastelitos that pop up at every desk, every cubicle, every dining room table at this time of the year.

Before you go all the way, however, consider this. Research has shown that much of what we do in our lives is ultimately determined by habit. While changing those behaviors may not be a piece of cake so to speak, it may be easier than you think.

In a bestselling new book, The Power of Habit (Random House, $28) , Charles Duhigg explores why we do what we do and how habits form and change.

“What surprised me most was learning that any habit can be changed ... no matter how ingrained,” he said.

Why do some people change for the better while others don’t?

“It’s a matter of diagnosing cues and rewards,” said Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times.

Researchers have found that cues set off signals to our brains that it’s time for an activity sure to yield a desired reward. In fact, we have learned to associate the cue with that specific reward.

Example: Visiting a friend’s home where food is always part of the visit. That’s a signal to your brain that it’s time to eat (or overeat). Yet the reward is the satisfaction and comfort associated with the visit.

How to change: Replace the food with a walk with your friend. You still get the same rewards of conversation with a friend, minus the guilt and ill effects from the eating. Better still, establishing one healthy habit spills over to other areas of your life, Duhigg said.

Long before this ground-breaking research, Alcoholics Anonymous was helping people to stop drinking by attacking the habits around drinking and the temptation to drink. Replacing the drinking activity with the habit of attending AA meetings and calling other AA members, therapists or healthy friends would yield the desired reward — comfort and a feeling of self worth.

In the case of AA, Duhigg said, “what stuck out is the power of community, and how integral it is to change. Other people are involved in the change. They encourage you.”

Pitfalls to look out for, however, are unexpected cues that trip us up. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Miami School of Business, many people who eat fast food may be reacting to a feeling of scarcity that triggers a survival instinct.

The research by Juliano Laran, assistant professor of marketing, and Anthony Salerno, a marketing doctoral student, will be published next year in Psychological Science, the journal for the Association for Psychological Science.

Salerno became interested in the topic after reviewing studies that looked at New York City’s efforts to encourage people to make better food choices by requiring chain restaurants to include calorie counts on menus. In 2008, the city became the first in the country to do so. In general, the studies found no significant change in consumer behavior.

“People have the information to make a more healthy choice,” he said. “What’s happening?”

A New York University study published in 2009 looked at lower income neighborhoods in particular.

Salerno and Laran set out to answer the question, “Do perceptions that a person lives in a harsh environment influence their food choices?”

The two set up studies on the Coral Gables campus, including giving some students choices of high-calorie foods, while posting on a nearby wall words such as survival, withstand, shortfall and adversity. Students exposed to the words, or cues, ate more.

In another study, students were also exposed to the “survival” words but some werepaid $1 for their participation. They could choose either a salad or a cupcake.

“It was just a dollar,” Salerno said, but it changed the feeling of scarcity. Those who received the dollar were more likely to choose the salad, while those who did not chose the cupcakes, proving their theory that “selecting high-calorie foods was not predicated on taste, but on compensating for perceptions of resource scarcity.”

However, despite underlying anxiety, Duhigg said, habit trumps everything. Pinpoint cues and rewards, then change the routine. The underlying habits will change.

“Willpower is like a muscle. You can teach people habits to make willpower stronger,” he said.

He cites a woman named Lisa who was in total despair, in a rage over her husband leaving her for another woman. She was heavily overweight, drinking and smoking. She flew to Cairo on a whim, as she always wanted to see the pyramids. On her first morning there, she was lying in bed in a blackened hotel room, awakened by the call of prayer from a nearby mosque. In the dark, she reached for a cigarette, only to realize that she had lit up a plastic pen.

She broke down. Completely. Later that day, while traveling through the city in a taxi, she vowed to return in a year to trek across the Egyptian desert that surrounded the pyramids. She knew she had to change one thing: Stop smoking.

She knew she had to replace her smoking habit with another habit. She started jogging regularly.

She started losing weight. She started training for a half marathon. She kept a job after years of job-hopping. She paid off debts. Four years later, she had lost 60 pounds, run her first full marathon, was promoted at work, enrolled in a master’s degree program, bought a house and got engaged.

It was that one decision — she had to stop smoking and had to replace that habit — that led to her new life.

Scientists studying her brain also were astounded: The neurological patterns surrounding her old habits had been overridden by new patterns established in her brain.

“By focusing on one pattern — what is known as a ‘keystone habit’ — Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life, as well,’’ Duhigg writes in the book.

Ok, back to those pastelitos.

Sheah Rarback, director of nutrition for the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami, notes that habits affect our food choices. She suggests a common sense approach to eating all year long.

Her tips:

• Eat breakfast (low-calorie, protein-rich foods)
• Drink water before meals.
• Get enough sleep.
• Make vegetables the largest serving on your plate.
• Don’t skip meals.
• To relieve stress, replace eating with physical activity.

Make it easy to make good choices, she adds. Prepare foods ahead to avoid stops for fast food and bring healthy snacks to work or when traveling.

Finally, she said, overeating on Thanksgiving is not going to make a lot of difference. Everyday behavior is what counts. As for the many holiday parties to come, her advice is, don’t fool yourself. Eat small portions of everything, and don’t hold court in front of the food table.

“Don’t say you’re saving up all your calories for the party,” Rarback said, “because you’re going to overeat. Take control of your plate.”

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