James Clear’s blockbuster book Atomic Habits breaks down how we can create habits that serve us, as well as how to break habits that don’t serve us. Snacking is a very common habit many of us engage in that can hinder our progress in reaching our weight loss goals. So how exactly do we learn to break the habit of snacking?
Tune Into Your Hunger Cues
One strategy that can be very helpful to promote weight loss is to decrease snacking when we are not physically hungry. As human beings we have the unique ability to engage in metacognition, which means that we have the ability to think about our thoughts. Because of that ability, we can condition ourselves to create new habits. Here’s how a habit works.
How Habits Work
Habits start with a cue or trigger – an example of a trigger might be that you see cookies in your environment. That trigger then leads to a craving or the urge to eat a cookie. The craving leads to a response – you eat the cookie. When you eat the cookie, you get a reward – it tastes good and the brain releases dopamine which is a neurotransmitter responsible for creating the positive sensations we feel whenever we experience something pleasurable. The cycle is complete.
How can we use this information to help us condition ourselves to break a habit that doesn’t serve us? Many of us learned about the famous experiment of Pavlov’s dogs: Researchers noticed that the dogs in their labs salivated whenever they heard the footsteps of the people coming down the hallway to feed them. The dogs salivated because they anticipated the food. The researchers wondered if other triggers would lead to salivation. They experimented with pairing the sound of a bell with offering the dogs food. Sure enough, after a while, the dogs salivated just by hearing the bell even before food was offered. The next step was to figure out if they could extinguish the salivation if no food was offered after the bell was rung. After a while when the dogs realized that food did not follow the bell, they stopped salivating.
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What does this have to do with urges?
Imagine that the bell is the trigger and the salivation is the urge. If food doesn’t come after the bell is rung (trigger) then after a while the salivation (urge) will stop. Since we have the unique ability to think about our thinking, we can leverage that to become aware of our thoughts in the moment. So if you’re presented with the trigger of a cookie in your environment, and experience the urge to eat that cookie, pause and think about that urge. This is what’s called the “moment of volition.” We can choose to either eat the cookie, or not.
We all know how powerful urges can be. Environmental triggers like food in our environment are especially strong since human beings are wired to notice food. There was a time in our evolution that food was not abundant in our environment, and if we didn’t notice food, we risked starvation. Its hard to remember this now that food is all around us.
The first step in changing habits is to identify your triggers. Triggers can be as simple as you’re sitting in the same chair you used to sit in when you were snacking (for this, try sitting someplace else). Or maybe you’re triggered when you feel overwhelmed or stressed after a difficult day. Part of the weight loss journey is the opportunity to truly understand what makes you tick. It’s worth spending time to know what your particular triggers are.
Becoming Mindful of Urges
Once you experience an urge, become very mindful of it. Try not to fight it – instead just let it be. Again, think of the urge as a dog’s salivation. The dogs didn’t try to fight the salivation or use their paws to push it back into their salivary glands. They just let it be. So should you with your urge. Completely experience the urge. Where do you feel it in your body? Is it in your chest? Your mouth? Is it a tightening in your belly? Does it have a color?
The 4 D’s
After you’ve experienced the urge completely, try the 4D’s:
- Distract yourself (do something else or move to another space),
- Delay (tell yourself if you still want it in 30 minutes, you can have it)
- Take deep breaths
- Drink a glass of water
And then, don’t eat the cookie (or whatever your urge is). This will take some practice so don’t worry if you don’t get it right away. But it’s worth the effort, because If you are able to do this, after a while you will extinguish the urge that was previously generated by the trigger! How exciting would that be?
How FORM Can Help With New Habits
The weight loss journey has many components to it. When you are ready to address habits that don’t serve your desired goal of weight loss, FORM can help! At FORM, all patients undergo a comprehensive medical evaluation, including a review of their medical history and laboratory tests. Patients participate in frequent visits with a doctor and Registered Dietitian, who will provide a personalized nutrition and physical activity plan, accountability, FDA-approved medication (if appropriate), and support for long-term behavior change, including building new habits and breaking old habits that don’t serve you well.
If you are interested in starting a medical weight loss program, schedule a call to talk with a Care Advisor or send a message to FORM today for more information.
About the Author
Maria Maldonado, MD
Dr. Maria Maldonado is an internist and obesity medicine specialist who is passionate about helping her patients achieve their health and wellness goals. She initially became interested in pursuing a career in obesity medicine after navigating her own health and wellness journey. Dr. Maldonado is board certified in Internal Medicine, and a diplomate of the American Board of Obesity Medicine. She is a fellow of the American College of Physicians, an educator at the Institute for Medical Education at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a member of the Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine and the Obesity Medical Association.