Psychologist's Tips for Breaking Bad Habits

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

I'd like to begin by saying I don't encourage people to completely give up particular food items, unless they've been advised to do so by their dietician.

Restricting foods generally results in a restrict/binge cycle whereby people end up feeling deprived and resentful of the effort required to lose weight, and then overdo it by bingeing.

This results in them feeling ashamed as they attempt to get back on the proverbial wagon.

Feb Fast

feb fast

I understand people's desire to join Febfast for a good cause, a national campaign that encourages individuals to call time-out on alcohol, sugar or another vice of their choice.

But would urge folks to bear in mind the possibility of being tempted to binge on those “forbidden” foods after that month is up.

My preference is for people to enjoy discretionary foods in moderation because that is more sustainable and less likely to result in overeating.

That said, if you wish to participate in Febfast...

Here are some ideas for developing new, healthy habits.

Ciarrochi, Bailey and Harris (2015) discuss how to eliminate a bad habit in their book

The Weight Escape”. According to the authors, habits consist of a Cue, a Routine and a Reward and these form a feedback loop.

We need to

  1. Identify these variables

  2. Modify them in order to break the negative cycle. By bringing these behaviours to conscious awareness they become less automatic and you will be able to talk yourself out of it!


These include boredom, stress, loneliness, unpleasant feelings, skipping meals and becoming excessively hungry.


Eating high calorie treats and fast food


Decreased boredom/stress; feeling comforted; feeling instantly satisfied/energy boost. This immediate reward feels good and reduces unpleasant feelings so we are more likely to engage in that behaviour the next time we are faced with a cue. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Let's modify some of these aspects so the feedback loop is broken!

Modify the Cues

Remove unhealthy food options by not having those items available in the pantry. Stock up on alternatives, and remember to take healthy snack options with you when you head out.

Don't starve yourself so that you are excessively hungry – this will give you “permission” to stray from your new habit.

Change the Routine

Modify the routine to get the same reward. This can be achieved by trying less calorific options; engaging in some exercise to reduce stress/anxiety/boredom; chatting to a friend rather than seeking comfort in food.

Change the Reward

Try to reward yourself (using a non-food reward) for choosing to respond differently to the cue. This will strengthen the new routine.

How to Deal with Cravings

If you experience cravings for a food item, you could try telling yourself to wait 20

minutes before acting on the craving.

In the meantime, you could try to distract yourself with exercise/ chores/ other activities. Craving waves typically subside within 20 minutes after which the urge won't be felt as strongly, making it easier for you to stay on track with your goal.

Good luck,

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