AS ANYONE WHO’S ever tried a new diet knows, it’s easy to commit to a healthy-eating plan—and even easier to lose steam or willpower and ditch your resolve after a few weeks or even days. That’s because most of us don’t give our new, healthy habits the time and attention they need to become automatic, suggest findings in the European Journal of Social Psychology. When researchers surveyed people who were trying to embrace a new habit over a 12-week period, they found that on average, it took 66 days for a new behaviour to stick.
Of course, everyone is different—some lucky participants formed a new habit in just 18 days, while others needed 254 days. The long and the short of it: it doesn’t happen overnight, for anyone.
“So many of us give up on new habits we’re trying to establish because we’re looking for instant gratification,” says Jean Kristeller, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana State University and author of the forthcoming book The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food. But the hard truth is that creating new, healthy behaviours can take just as much time, energy, and effort as breaking bad ones.
But the work doesn’t have to feel like drudgery. In fact, a mindful approach can help you enjoy the process of forming a healthy eating habit, whether your goal is to choose veggies over refined carbs to lose weight, to slow down to enjoy mealtime, or to eliminate meat to match your ethics. “Mindfulness helps decrease the effort that people experience in making changes,” says Kristeller. “It seems to help connect us to more powerful ways to change those old neural pathways that are literally etched into the brain, and work to find and create new ones to strengthen.” The following plan will help you set real expectations for the duration needed to make a lasting change, while gradually incorporating mindfulness practices, smart food choices, and more pleasure (we promise!) into each meal. The best part? Commit to these practices over the next six weeks (and if you need more time, check out our extended 66-day plan at yogajournal.com.au/mindfuldiet), and you’ll flip on your brain’s “healthy eater” switch forever.
WEEK ONE – Build a Foundation
Science shows us that the first step to creating a new, lasting habit is to ask yourself this crucial question: what behaviour do I want to create? Notice we didn’t say, “Launch a mass attack on everything you’d like to get rid of.” Rather, it’s about naming what you want more of in your life. Here’s how to start:
Day 1 Dedicate your intention. At the start of most yoga classes, the teacher suggests you offer up your practice to something bigger than yourself. Well, Scott Blossom, an Ayurvedic consultant, acupuncturist, and yoga teacher, says that doing this when you’re trying to incorporate a new habit into your life is the ultimate key to being successful. “When your goal is tied to something bigger than you—something that feels meaningful—it helps you remember what you’re trying to bring more of into your life,” says Blossom. Not sure where to start? Ask yourself a simple question: what do I love most in life? Then make your changes for that person or thing—whether it’s your partner, your kids, a pet, or a happy you.
Day 2 Commit to a daily yoga practice. Even if you have time for only a few minutes of Savasana or deep breathing each day, it can up the odds of making good habits stick. Researchers found that just 11 hours of meditation over the course of four weeks created structural changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region involved in monitoring focus and self-control.
Day 3 Set smart—not more—food goals. Here, three simple steps for setting achievable diet intentions:
1 Be specific. Naming the steps, and listing an order in which you’ll complete them, leads to success more often than setting an ambiguous, flexible plan, a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found.
2 Establish milestones. Brain-imaging studies show that the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is like a reward system that helps us reach goals. Dopamine signals in the brain get stronger as we get closer to hitting our goal, one study published in the journal Nature showed. So, instead of setting an open-ended ambition (“I will never eat bread again”), set short-term, achievable milestones that motivate you to stay on track (“I will avoid processed grains today”).
3 Clue in your community. Write your goals in an email and send it to three close friends. People who write down their goals, share those goals with a friend, and send weekly progress updates are 33 percent more successful in accomplishing what they set out to do than those who merely formulate goals, according to research at the Dominican University of California in San Rafael.
WEEK TWO – Do a Digestion Assessment
Writing down what you eat can help you lose weight, and the process will also clue you in to what foods your body digests well—or not, according to Doug Hyde, an Ayurvedic practitioner in Killaloe, Ireland, who offers nutrition classes and consultations. “Spending one week tuning in to your body and discovering the ‘healthy’ foods that aren’t great for you will set you up for success,” says Hyde. It can also help you stay on track with other goals. For example, if you commit to writing down everything you eat, you might not be as likely to cave and have that bacon or hot dog if your goal is to eat according to your ethics.
Days 8–14 Keep a food diary. To figure out which foods make you feel fab—or drab—keep track of the following every day this week.
What did you eat? What was your hunger level before each meal? How did you feel 15 minutes afterward? Ideally, you should feel hungry but not famished before all of your meals (serious hunger pangs mean you’re waiting too long to eat and are more likely to overeat or make unhealthy choices), and ener-gized within 15 minutes of finishing. Feeling like you need a nap post-meal is a sign you’re not getting the nutrients or calories you need.
How much did you drink, and how thirsty (or not) did you feel? You should aim to never feel parched, and should be drinking enough to pee 4–8 times a day. Your urine should be straw-colored—neither clear (which can actually mean you’re overhydrating and your body isn’t absorbing the water you drink) nor too dark (which can signal dehydration).
How often did you pass stool, and sweat? Everyone’s digestive system is different, but ideally you’ll have one or two bowel movements a day and not feel particularly gassy. You should also be sweating for at least 30 minutes each day.
“You’ll likely notice certain foods that you can eat every day that never give you digestive issues,” says Blossom. “Those are your power foods, which can be incorporated into your diet as often as you like.” As for the stuff that makes you feel sluggish, bloated, constipated, or just generally zapped? Steer clear to repair your gut, lose bloat and excess weight, and feel better overall.
Days 4–6 Practice eating mindfully. As anyone who’s ever ploughed through an entire pint of ice cream or bag of chips knows well, stress and other emotions can play a big role in causing us to overeat. Mindfulness is an antidote, according to research published in Clinical Psychology Review. It showed that the practice acts directly on brain regions that regulate our emotions, enabling us to think more clearly.
But know that, at first, practicing mindfulness when you eat can feel pretty forced—until it becomes second nature, says Annie B. Kay, lead nutritionist at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and author of Every Bite Is Divine. “Mindful eating is really about reconnecting with the sensual enjoyment of food, and there are many different ways to do this,” says Kay. Finding the practice that resnates with you will help you stick to it effortlessly. Here’s an easy guide to discovering your fit:
If your go-to meditation or de-stress tactic is … Savasana
TRY A senses scan. As you dig in to your next meal, tap into all five senses. What does your food smell or look like? What is the taste and feel on your tongue, or the texture in your hands? What does the food sound like when you cut or chew it? Take a moment to really consider your answers. “Asking and answering these questions after each bite will inherently help you slow down and savour your food,” says Kay.
If your go-to meditation or de-stress tactic is … counting your breaths
TRY Counting your chews. “Ayurvedic practitioners recommend 30 chews per mouthful, to really break down your food before it hits the digestive system, but even if you get into the double digits, that’s great,” says Kay. “The goal is to tune in to the food you’re eating, not just shovel it in without really tasting or enjoying it.”
If your go-to meditation or de-stress tactic is … repeating a mantra
TRY Setting an intention at the meal start. You can say grace, express your gratitude for your food and the people who helped grow and prepare it, or simply remind yourself to continually tap into all of your senses after each bite.
Day 7 Cheat! Yep, you read that right. Now that you’re working toward your goals, go ahead and dig in to something that feels like a splurge—whether it’s a piece of chocolate cake, penne a la vodka, or an order of fries. An occasional, purposeful cheat is the opposite of an overly restrictive diet, which is proven to back-fire. Women who were asked to cut carbs for three days reported stronger food cravings and ate 44 percent more calories from carb-rich foods on day four than women who didn’t restrict themselves, according to a study in the journal Appetite.
WEEK THREE – Replace Old Vices with New Routines
Habits follow a very specific “loop,” says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. You get a cue (say, it’s 3 p.m.), which prompts a reward-seeking behaviour (you walk to the kitchen to grab a bicuit and chat with co-workers), and a routine is born: that 3 p.m.biscuit-chat break becomes a daily ritual. So, this week is all about noticing triggers for unhealthy patterns—and figuring out how to reward yourself in new ways.
Day 15 Identify your “bad habit” routine. Name one unhealthy eating habit you want to change—like that afternoon biscuit klatch.
Days 16–18 Figure out the cue. When you crave that biscuit is it because you’re hungry? Bored? Feel like you need a break before diving into another task? Experiments have shown that almost all cues that prompt habits fall into one of five categories: location (work-ing at a desk, driving to work, sitting on the couch), time (3 o’clock slump, 11 p.m. munchies), emotional state (sad, bored, stressed), other people (friends, partners, co-workers), and the action that immediately preceded the urge (finished a task, TV show ended, tough phone call). The moment your bad-habit urge hits you, write down what’s happening in these five areas. After three days, it should be clear what’s triggering your habitual response.
Days 19–21 Experiment with different rewards. Rewards are powerful because they satisfy our cravings, says Duhigg. To help you pinpoint a routine’s reward (i.e., is it the biscuit itself—or is it simply stretching your legs or talking to co-workers?), try giving yourself a new, different reward when the craving strikes. For example, you might take a walk, have an apple, or chat in the break room without eating. Write down how you feel after you’ve tested each new reward. Are you relaxed? Maybe what you needed was fresh air or social interaction. Still hungry? That apple has perhaps clued you in to the fact that you’re not eating enough or the right things for lunch.
Smart rewards – Want to connect with others?
INSTEAD OF … having a third cup of coffee in the hopes that someone will be in the break room when you pour it
TRY … scheduling a walk-and-talk break with a colleague
Want to combat boredom?
INSTEAD OF … munching on biscuits
TRY… doing a self-care ritual, whether it’s a 10-minute home yoga session or giving yourself a mini-facial
Want to decompress after a tough day?
INSTEAD OF … diving into your dark-chocolate stash
TRY … calling a friend on your lunch break to vent and laugh together
WEEK FOUR – Manage Obstacles
There’s always going to be something that threatens to throw you off your healthy-eating game. But how you react to—and plan for—those eventualities will be what helps you stay the course.
Days 22–24 Commit (again) to daily yoga. If you’ve found yourself too busy to practice asana or meditate each day, try experimenting with the time of day you practice. Then, keep tabs on what felt best and most doable—because that’s what will be sustainable.
Day 25 Channel stress like an animal. When we have no outlet for stress, we eat as a way to tame those emotions—and typical go-tos are carb- and sugar-rich foods that boost the feel-good hormone serotonin in our bodies. The solution, Kay suggests, is to shake off stress—literally. “When you look at animals, they shake their bodies, flick their heads, and generally move around a lot after a stressful situation,” says Kay. It helps them get rid of pent-up energy and those stress hormones their bodies produced. If we did the same thing, it would help us process our stress in a healthier way than stuffing it down with food. If shaking like your pup doesn’t seem appropriate, get up and go for a walk, recommends Kay. Any kind of movement will help you release the stress—and avoid overeating as a result.
Day 26 Make an ultimatum list, and then burn it. Put pen to paper and write down all of the diet “rules” that you’re trying to follow: no sugar, no gluten, no dessert, no coffee, no booze—you get the gist. Then, really ask yourself why these rules have been difficult or impossible to follow, says dietician Leslie J. Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the UPMC Centre for Sports
Medicine. “Once you’ve figured out why those old goals aren’t realistic for you, ditch your ‘should’ list,” she says.
Day 27 Visualize the finish line. Jules Peláez, a yoga teacher in Boulder, Colorado, and co-founder of Conscious Cleanse, says this is the practice she turns to when she needs a little nudge to stay committed:
1 Close your eyes, imagine your happy place—the spot where you feel most grounded and centred. Take a moment to notice all the beauty around you.
2 Once you’re there, look up and notice someone ahead of you, and start slowly walking toward that vision. As you walk closer, that person comes into focus. It’s you at the end of this journey, having achieved all of your goals.
3 How do you feel now that you’ve succeeded? What do you look like? What’s the message you have for yourself that you can embrace right now, as you’re still on this journey? (Maybe it’s, “You’ve got this,” or, “You’re almost there.”)
Multiple studies have found that mental practices like the above are almost as effective as physical ones, such as exercise, to help us stay the course. A study published in Neuropsychologia found the same brain patterns were activated when people imagined pumping iron as when they actually lifted. The caveat: Don’t get caught up in your thoughts. Too much focus on fantasy can make you less ambitious, suggests a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. So, go ahead and visualize your goals—just be sure you plot and put in the hard work it’ll take to reach them, too.
Day 28 Give someone a hug. Research shows that any kind of bodily contact—whether it’s a hug or a handshake—can boost oxytocin, a brain chemical that may help control appetite. Oxytocin was found to help curb drug cravings, and experts say it may work the same way to ease food hankerings as well.
WEEK FIVE – Have More Fun with Your Food
There’s a good chance you’re getting bored with your same-old green smoothie for breakfast, kale salad for lunch, lean meat and veggies for dinner, and chia-seed pudding for dessert. Now’s the time to mix up your repertoire, says Kristeller. “Having fun right now will help you stay motivated to make it through this plan,” she says.
Day 29 Invest in a new kitchen gadget. Maybe you’ve had your eye on a thermomix that’ll make veggie risotto or you’ve always wanted a Nutri bullet for perfect smoothies. Treat yourself.
“If cooking’s no fun, you’ll reach for unhealthier convenient foods and takeout,” says dietician Laura Lagano, an integrative nutritionist.
Day 30 Cook a new-to-you food. Are you roasting the same vegetables or topping your salad with shredded carrots again? Choose one fruit or veggie you never incorporate into your meals and prepare it today, suggests Lagano. “Don’t just let that kumquat stare you down,” she says. “If you buy it at a farmers’ market, ask the farmer how he or she likes to use it.”
Day 31 Win without Instagram. Search #foodporn on Instagram and you’ll see more than 52 million pictures of crave-worthy food. While the food photos are a great way to get new recipe ideas, scrolling through too many and posting your own shots on social media may boost unhealthy cravings and contribute to weight gain, according to a new study in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.
Days 32–33 Find joy in food shopping. Going grocery shopping can feel like a big, annoying chore—or it can be a highlight of your week, says Debra L. Benfield, a nutrition counsellor and registered yoga teacher in North Carolina. “Finding the grocery stores, farm stands, and little ethnic-food shops that help you connect to your food will not only make the shopping experience more fun, but will also inspire you to make smarter choices,” she says. “These spots often have far more whole foods and homemade offerings, and fewer processed foods.”
Days 34–35 Take a couple days off! You’ve been testing your mettle in the kitchen this week, so give yourself a break. Organise a “healthy” potluck with friends in which everyone brings their favourite good-for-you recipe. Or, hit up your favourite whole-food restaurant. “Not only will this give you renewed energy to cook again next week, but it’ll help you see that it is possible to eat healthy when you’re socialising with friends or out at a restaurant,” says Benfield.
Notice (and Celebrate!) Changes
By now, you’re starting to feel and possibly look a little different. Maybe you have more energy or less bloat; maybe that tight yoga tank is fitting a bit better or your friends are saying that your skin “glows.” Acknowledging your success is a surefire way to stay the course because it’s proof that you’re well able to make healthy changes and continue to do so, says Kristeller. So, this week is all about celebrating how far you’ve come—without reverting to old habits.
Day 36 Splurge on new patterned yoga pants.
Day 37 Give in to a guilty non-food-related pleasure. You could buy a gossip mag or binge-watch rom-coms on Netflix.
Day 38 Treat yourself to a store-made green juice.
Day 39 Go for a long walk with a friend who makes you laugh ’til you cry.
Day 40 Take a morning or full day off from work. Spend it in your happy place (the beach, a spa, a mountain trail—whatever gets you smiling).
Day 41 Give your goals a one-day break!
Day 42 Check in. Remember the email you sent to your friends on Day 3? Send them a progress report today. This checkpoint will make you accountable to your support crew and help you assess whether you’re staying true to your goals. If your habits are rock solid now (you’ll know they are when they’re starting to feel like second nature rather than a struggle), good on you. You can keep up the plan on your own.
About the author:
Meghan Rabbitt is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Women’s Health, Prevention, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Redbook, Refinery29, Well+Good, and more.