One of the biggest hurdles of losing weight is simply getting started. If you’re used to not exercising regularly and eating whatever you want whenever you want, losing weight means a full-on behavior change. Environmental cues are some of the strongest influences on our behavior, particularly when it comes to exercising and eating healthy. In fact, the increase in the prevalence of obesity in the United States over the past 20 to 30 years is believed to be partially due to changes in our environment that promote overeating, such as super-size portion sizes, and inactivity. It is possible, however, to change cues in our environment to promote healthy eating and physical activity.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Chelsi Cardoso says doing so involves building new habits, which can take time. “When you respond to a food cue in the same way, over and over again, you build a habit,” Cardoso said. “For example, if you usually eat potato chips while watching TV, turning on the TV can make you hungry for potato chips, even if you just left the dinner table. So, how can you change problem food cues and habits? First, you want to attempt to avoid the cue or keep it out of sight. So, if watching TV is your cue for being inactive or for overdoing it on potato chips, you’re going to want to limit your TV time. You also can try replacing the eating behavior with another behavior, such as being active while watching TV. This can help build a new, healthy habit that leads to a healthier lifestyle overall,” she explained.
Other people, Cardoso says, also can impact your habits. “In addition to being cued by your environment, what other people say or do also can affect your eating and activity behaviors,” she said. “These words or actions of others are called social cues. For instance, the sight of your spouse eating ice cream can make you want to eat ice cream. In this situation, you should try to change the cue if you can. Maybe relocate to another room so that the sight of him or her eating doesn’t tempt you to give in and break your diet,” she said. “Sometimes, social cues can be assumed, too. Maybe you’re afraid of hurting your mother’s feelings when you don’t eat a piece of the pie she made. You’re assuming she’ll be offended, so you’re going against your diet plan. If you explain it to her, though, she will likely be proud of your efforts to lose weight and be healthier. Saying ‘no’ is okay, but do so politely, and show others that you know they mean well. Ask them to praise your efforts and ignore your slip-ups,” she added.
Adding new, helpful cues can be beneficial, as well. “Changing habits takes time, but you can promote your desires to live healthier and improve your chances of success by adding helpful cues to your routines,” Cardoso said. “Spend time with people who are active and generally make healthy food choices. This way, their good habits can rub off on you. Try setting regular dates or activities that involve doing something that is truly active, such as biking, hiking or walking. When you go to a dinner party, bring a low-calorie food to share. Instead of going for coffee and a muffin with a friend, go for a walk-and-talk,” she said. “These are simple changes of mindset and approach, but they really can help you be more likely to achieve your goals,” she added.
Finally, Cardoso says, change your eating environment by simply not buying foods that don’t help you reach your goals. “One surefire way to avoid eating unhealthy snacks is to never bring them home from the store,” she said. “Make a shopping list ahead of time, and stick to it. Also, avoid going shopping when you’re hungry, and avoid the sections of the store that are the most tempting to you. When you get home, keep any unhealthy snacks out of sight. You want lower-calorie, low-carbohydrate foods to be the most visible and easy-to-reach,” she explained. “The trick is to make your environment work for you instead of against you,” she added.