Breaking the habit
Since most habits form insidiously and over extended periods of time, we are usually not aware of the role they play in our lives. We develop them as they give us pleasure or save us from discomfort and pain. Obviously, our habits themselves don’t provide us with satisfaction. For example, we don’t eat a candy bar because it tastes sweet, but because the taste of sweetness gives us pleasure. We don’t light a cigarette or have a drink because we want to smoke or get drunk, but because we need to relax or find a way to cope with stress. These needs remain, even when we try to deal with them in better ways.
Because we are mostly naive about the nature of our habits and the power they have over us, we expect that we can alter them at will. In my line of work I hear it all the time: “I can change if I want to.” “I can go on another diet any time.” “I can stop drinking whenever I decide to do so.” However, (perhaps with the exception of Reformed Diner types) breaking habits is never a simple matter.
One of the reasons why even our best efforts may fail is that bad habits serve as much a purpose as good ones. They can be too important for us to let go of them. Only by better understanding our habits and the roles they play for us can we hope to change them. For each of us the answer may be different. Let’s have another look at each of the Diner types.
Accidental Diners welcome challenges, especially when they offer some form of excitement. They readily sign up for fitness classes and dieting programs that promise welcome rewards, like being able to wear sexy clothes or swimsuits. Having their options limited, on the other hand, is hard to accept. If they could, they would rather have it all. Because Accidental Diners typically have a short attention span, flight into new and stimulating experiences is always a temptation. As they feel the pinch of deprivation, their need for pleasure can be overwhelming and the best of intentions come undone.
The good news is that Accidental Diners are able to draw from considerable energy resources to work for their goals – as long as they stay interested. Keeping their attention is key. A carefully outlined plan with clearly defined goals and timelines can help. It allows them to measure their progress. Having success can generate new excitement and keep them motivated to continue. Failure, on the other hand, is typically trivialized or outrightly denied.
Having a plan is essential for Accidental Diners to stay focused. Most importantly, they must understand the purpose and necessity of the sacrifices involved. Is it worth the effort? What is the payoff? How long does it take? If a plan can be worked out that promises a surplus of gain over pain, its chances for being successful increase tremendously.
Irregular Diner types can become intoxicated with their ability to perform. But all too often, a false sense of invincibility can lead to reckless behavior and disregard for their health. While burning the candle at both ends, Irregular Diners can be quite oblivious to the inevitable consequences. Eventually, many of them reach the point where they “burn out” and are forced to stop for other reasons– but sometimes it can be too late.
Unless they face disaster, Irregular Diners cannot easily be made to slow down to take better care of themselves. However, their natural drive to win can come in handy once they recognize the situation they’ve got themselves into. Since they are used to doing “whatever it takes,” they may even prefer drastic solutions. Weight loss, rigorous exercise, dieting or abstinence from alcohol can become another attractive “project” – especially if it gets them back in their game. Unfortunately, once their goals are achieved, Irregular Diners often shift their focus again on other tasks and “fall off the wagon.”
Instead of merely zooming in on a particular problem, such as excess weight, smoking or alcohol consumption, Irregular Diners can benefit from a broader, some say “wholistic,” approach. Long-term solutions for a healthier lifestyle may require a change in perspective. Stepping back and taking a hard look at the overall picture may seem out of character, but it can produce significant and lasting changes.
Not unlike Accidental Diners who get easily frustrated when something interferes with their need for pleasure, Habitual Diners find it difficult to break away from their long-time habits. If changes are forced upon them, they typically greet them with resentment. It is helpful to respect these boundaries and work around them. I recommend taking a radical departure from established routines only in critical cases, such as morbid obesity, extremely high blood pressure or off-the-chart cholesterol levels. A strategy of small, incremental steps may be more promising.
Obviously it makes no sense to serve tofu and seaweed when people are used to a meat and potato diet. There is also no need to clean out the pantry and get rid of all the favorite foods. To make meals leaner and more healthful, cutting back on portion sizes may work better than switching to completely new menus. It may be prudent to take time for soft transitions. Even the most conservative Habitual Diner will be more open to making changes when they’re introduced gradually.
In my book, The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun, I have included a number of “Meal Comparisons” and “Recipe Modifications.” Most are based on traditional ingredients and cooking styles – however, with a twist to reduce calories and add nutritional value. Chances are you won’t be able to taste the difference.
Because Social Diners tend to focus on the needs and preferences of other people first, they often don’t know how to ask for support for themselves. This can become a problem when lifestyle changes are introduced (such as weight management and regular exercise) that also affect others, especially when they disapprove or resist. It can be difficult for Social Diners to follow through with their plans if they have to act “without permission.”
Social Diners must learn that taking care of themselves is not the same as being selfish. Nobody should feel guilty about having needs and wanting to see them satisfied. If it involves others, and it usually does, open communication is in order. For example, one can say, “I want to cut back on restaurant food, but I don’t want to have less fun together. Let’s find something else to do when we go out.” Or, “Instead of watching TV, I would like us to join a gym and work out together.” Who knows, you may get surprising responses.
Dysfunctional behavior is a common phenomenon among Tragic-Romantic Diner types. Although they clearly suffer from their disorders or addictions, they often feel imprisoned, unable to escape. And yet, they themselves hold the key to their rescue.
Naturally, a comprehensive analysis of the pathological nature of addictive behavior would reach beyond the scope of nutritional counseling. In general, I believe that any form of therapy dealing with psychological trauma, such as addiction or depression, must include professional medical- and psychiatric care.
Having worked for many years in private practice as a dietitian, I have learned to appreciate small successes. Often that is all a patient is able to accomplish at a particular time. What is more important is not to lose hope. It is comforting to know that even a little progress in one area can have an impact on others, in a sort of ripple effect, if you will. Sometimes, only a slight shift in attitude can produce amazing results.