Why Changing Eating Behavior is So Hard (& What You Can Do About It)


“I know what I should be doing, I’m just not doing it.”

Have you thought or spoken these words before? Chances are more of us have than have not, and it’s incredibly frustrating when we know what we want to change, but for some reason, just can’t make that change a reality.

I hear this over and over from the clients with whom I work and it’s a significant contributor to the frustration they feel about their lack of success in changing eating behaviors.

The truth is, they usually do know an awful lot about food and nutrition and what they could be doing differently to improve the nutritional quality of their diet.

But despite their greatest efforts, all too often they find themselves right back where they started, each time feeling more defeated than before.

At Green Mountain, women often find comfort when they realize they aren’t alone in their experience, that their previous inability to make change really isn’t due to their lack of knowledge or willpower, and that there are several reasons to help explain why making change is so hard.

And, while it is true that changing behaviors is difficult, the good news is that it is not impossible.

So Why Is Making Change So Hard?

1. We’ve spent years forming our relationship with and behaviors around food.

Over the course of our lives, we form associations between certain feelings, activities, and events and certain foods and eating practices.

When we repeatedly respond to specific situations by eating certain foods or eating in a certain way, the association grows stronger. Eventually, it’s as if our response becomes almost automatic, in that we find ourselves eating that particular food before we really even realize it. This is a habit.

For example, when you were a kid and went to the movie theater, perhaps your parents bought you a bag of popcorn. You then created an association between the movie theater and eating popcorn. You continue to purchase popcorn each time you go to the theater as you get older. That association grows stronger.

After several years of this practice, you find yourself sitting in the movie theater with a bag of popcorn, and don’t even remember purchasing it because the behavior has become so automatic. Sound familiar?

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We form these associations, or habits, in all areas of our lives.

They are the result of neural pathways that form in our brain and become deeper and stronger with each repetition of the behavior. The stronger they become, the more difficult they are to change, even though we want to change them (maybe even desperately so) and know we could benefit from changing them.

The good news is, they can be changed – over time, with patience and practice.

2. We attempt to force change through restriction and deprivation.

With each unsuccessful attempt to make change, we begin to lose trust in ourselves. We tell ourselves things like, “if I have one piece, I am going to eat the entire bag.

We believe the safest option, or perhaps the only option, is total elimination of the problem food. Or, we feel we must follow a very rigid and prescriptive eating plan because, “I obviously can’t figure this out on my own.”

The problem is that when we take this path we very quickly begin to adopt an all-or-nothing mindset.

We are either “all in,” following the plan, eliminating all “problem” foods, or “all out,” not following the plan at all, and often over consuming restricted foods. This then reinforces the notion that we can’t trust ourselves, but really never results in any lasting changes.

3. We are very food suggestible creatures living in a very food abundant environment.

Evolution has programmed us to take advantage of the opportunity to eat when it presents itself, because for our evolutionary ancestors, the next opportunity to eat wasn’t always known.

However, unlike our evolutionary ancestors – we live in a food abundant environment, making it easy to eat at almost any time for any reason.

Moreover, food provides us with more than just fuel and nourishment, it provides us with pleasure and distraction.

Eating food (especially those high in sugar and fat) fire the pleasure centers in our brains, which make us feel good, at least temporarily.

When we see food that we know tastes good, sometimes it can be hard to resist because we associate eating that food with feelings of pleasure, and we like to feel good! And, when there is food around there is always something to do, distracting us from the boredom, monotony, and maybe even loneliness, of the day (and food is always around for many of us).

These can be powerful drivers of eating, which in the moment, can sometimes override our desire to change eating behaviors.    

So, what can we do about it? 5 Tips for making lasting behavior change…

1. Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is simply awareness in the present moment without judgment. It’s a simple concept with powerful potential.

It opens up the door for us to learn a whole lot about ourselves and what is influencing our desires and decisions. We begin to recognize the associations we’ve created between certain feelings, activities, and events and our food desires and decisions.

And, when we can harness that awareness without shaming ourselves for it, we can actually be constructive with that information, using it to help better inform, and change if need be, future decisions.  

2. Create options, not rules.

Rigid, rules-based thinking (you know, the list of shoulds and should-nots) keeps us on the pendulum swinging from one extreme (dieting and deprivation) to the other (uninhibited and overeating), without ever truly making lasting change.

That’s because we don’t typically respond well to commands, even if those commands are coming from us! We don’t like being told what to do, and our natural response is to rebel against those orders by doing the exact thing we want to change!

So, instead of telling yourself what you should be doing differently, phrase it as what you could be doing differently – giving yourself options, one of which is changing nothing at all.

By creating a list of coulds instead of a list of shoulds you are giving yourself the gift of choice. Choice builds feelings of empowerment, allowing you to be your own authority on health and food decisions.

3. Engage in constructive inner dialogue.

Notice how you talk to yourself.

All too often, when we don’t handle a particular situation in the way we would have liked (e.g., overeating at a party), we respond by putting ourselves down and beating ourselves up.

Ultimately, we try to shame ourselves into making change and it doesn’t work. In fact, it very well may spiral into a whirlwind of other self-destructive behaviors, which only serve to make us feel worse, before vowing to “do better.”

When we recognize that things didn’t exactly turn out the way we wanted them to, we are presented with an opportunity. An opportunity to learn. And, it’s being constructive with those opportunities that will allow us to actually change our response in the future.

The next time you find yourself heading down the path of self-berating, pause and give yourself the opportunity to choose a different route.

Ask yourself, with your judgment-free inner voice, what lead me to overeat and what could I do differently next time? After all, if we are already feeling pretty bad physically, does making ourselves feel bad psychologically fix anything?

4. Pace yourself.

Patience isn’t something we always have when it comes to changing behaviors, particularly eating behaviors.

We want to make changes happen overnight because we want to see results from those changes immediately. We think the more we can change all at once, the faster we will reach our goals.

But change takes time. Remember, we have deep, strong, neural pathways in our brains that influence our behaviors. They’ve had years and years to develop and while they can be changed, it takes time, and practice, for that to happen.

When we try to change too much too fast, we end up spreading ourselves too thin.

We aren’t able to fully focus our attention on any specific change, and as a result we don’t see the success we’re looking for. We wind up feel overwhelmed and defeated and likely abandoning all of our efforts, finding ourselves right back where we started.

Instead, when we start slow, with one small change at a time, we can focus more fully on developing effective strategies without feeling overwhelmed. As we see ourselves successfully making changes, our motivation and confidence in our ability to continue to make changes grows.

5. Focus on internal markers of progress.

Have you ever had that experience when you “did everything right,” and the scale didn’t budge? Or, even worse, the number went up?

It’s likely that you have because the scale is a terrible measure of our progress toward improving health behaviors.

External measures like this can really interfere with making lasting change because the moment that piece of plastic on the floor doesn’t tell us what we think it should we feel like a failure. We may even decide to give up because we “can’t do it”.

And really, if you are engaging in all of these health-supportive behaviors (like eating balanced meals and moving your body), does the fact that the scale didn’t change mean that those behaviors are not still good for your body? Of course not! But if the scale doesn’t validate those efforts, it’s easy to feel that way.

So better measures of progress are really internal markers – your energy level, sleep quality, mood, endurance, etc. Consider ditching the scale altogether and really focusing your attention on building behaviors that truly make you feel good, and are really representative of your efforts.

Changing behaviors is never easy. And in the thin-obsessed, diet-focused culture we live in, changing eating behaviors can be particularly challenging. But, if we can practice mindfulness, trade rigid rules for flexible options, take it slow, talk nice to ourselves, and focus on what truly makes us feel good, it is possible to find freedom from the eating challenges that have been holding us back.

4 responses to “Why Changing Eating Behavior is So Hard (& What You Can Do About It)”

  1. Kim says:

    Thanks for this article! I can now put feet to where I have been defeating myself. “All – or – nothing thinking” and my critical self thinking! Pray for me! And keep sending articles to help us make mindful changes!

    Blessings Kim

    • Dana says:

      Thank you for your comment, Kim. I am glad that you found the article helpful and that it provided some clarity as to what might be standing in the way of making change.

  2. Carmen says:

    Wow, yesterday, I said that EXACT line, “I know what I should be doing, I’m just not doing it.” to my doctor (after having a TIA and being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes).

    I found the words “Pace Yourself” to be quite comforting and calming. I think I’m going to put it on an index card and stick it to my bathroom mirror. I usually start my day with unrealistic goals, ( which I never accomplish by the end of the day) failure of which only furthers my feelings of complete…crappiness.

    Bah…it’s getting tiring after 40+ years!

    • Dana Notte says:

      Thanks for your comment, Carmen. You are right — it can be exhausting. A little self-compassion goes a long way! And, I think we can all use a reminder to slow down and pace ourselves once in awhile.

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About the Author

Dana Notte, MS, RD, CD

Dana has dedicated her career to helping individuals establish a balanced and healthy relationship with food. She has extensive training and experience in coaching for behavior change, mindful eating, and motivational interviewing. Dana has spent years leading group-based behavior change classes, developing and leading interactive workshops for worksite wellness programs, and providing nutrition counseling to individuals struggling with eating, weight, and chronic health conditions. Her practice style is client-centered, compassionate and empowering, with the goal of helping individuals develop the confidence to achieve their health and wellness goals. Dana is the Nutrition Lead at Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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