A psychologist offers ways to change bad diet habits

There are many reasons why someone might have poor eating habits. Insider spoke with clinical psychologist Kimberly M. Daniels for her advice on how to kick the bad habit and adopt a new one long-term. Read on to learn about the steps you can take toward a healthier diet.

This article was reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City. Whether you're trying to lose weight or just eat healthier, sticking to a new diet is tough. Because you're not just breaking one eating habit but you're building a new one at the same time. 

And breaking habits — especially the kind that trigger your brain's reward centers, like when you gorge on ice cream — takes time and effort. 

Insider spoke with clinical psychologist Kimberly M. Daniels, who specializes in overeating and weight issues, to learn what she considers the best practices for how to break the habit of a poor diet, adopt a new, healthier one, and — most importantly — stick to it.

How to break the habit of a poor diet

"I advise people not even to call it a diet. That brings up all kinds of negative emotions and expectations, such as deprivation, rules, food logs, etc," Daniels says.

Daniels explains that when it comes to breaking bad habits, it is helpful to think of current habits in terms of self-care. 

"Binge eating ice cream every night would easily be defined as a bad habit, but people do that to soothe or comfort themselves. So it's actually self-care. Self-care that doesn't get you anywhere good, but still self-care." 

Daniels recommends trying to uncover why you are performing this self-care habit by asking yourself some questions.

If you're eating ice cream every night, why?  What are you avoiding?  What are you distracting yourself from?  Why do you feel the need to comfort yourself in that way? 

Once you understand your reasons more clearly, you can start to address the real cause of the behavior and break the bad habit. For example, "if you're eating ice cream every night because you're lonely, how can you boost your social connections?" says Daniels.

How to adopt the habit of a good diet

When developing new good habits, mental setbacks are a natural part of the process. 

"I often find that people feel unworthy of something better," says Daniels. "Many people feel horrible about themselves." So, as you develop good habits, it's important that they're not only good by nature but that they make you feel good, too.

To achieve that, it's important to manage your expectations accordingly. Daniels says that happiness is often an expectation for those who lose weight. When happiness doesn't necessarily occur, they give up. 

That's why being realistic with yourself about what you hope to accomplish by adopting healthier eating habits is essential. If it is to lose weight, ask yourself why is this important to you, and what do you expect to gain from losing weight? "It's extremely important to make your expectations realistic," says Daniels. 

This goes hand-in-hand with the next step: Set realistic goals when it comes to implementing new habits. Overloading yourself with too many changes at once can become overwhelming. 

"I always say slow and steady wins the race. Traditional diets don't work because they ask you to make 27 changes all at the same time. That's impossible", Daniels says. She suggests choosing one or two simple aspects of your diet that you'd like to work on at a time and don't make any other changes until you have those down.

And as you start to make those changes, focus on adding healthy foods into your diet rather than on cutting unhealthy foods out, such as sugar or carbs. Removing foods makes you feel deprived. Whereas adding foods gives you a sense of accomplishment. 

How to stick to your new diet

You know you can stick to a new diet when that diet no longer feels new and becomes second nature. To achieve that it's as the saying goes "practice makes perfect" and sticking to your new healthy eating pattern is no exception. It takes time and practice.

Daniels explains that in the beginning, you will be very aware of what you're eating all the time. Thinking about whether or not you are hungry and if not, why you're choosing to eat is something that takes practice.


"That does get easier over time, especially if you realize you have patterns such as always eating when you're tired or bored. Once you realize this, you can plan for it and avoid it" says Daniels.

Daniels says you'll know it's a habit when "it no longer requires your attention. You don't have to think about it anymore. It just happens naturally."

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