Noticing Habits is the First Step towards Breaking them

I’ve just returned from 2 weeks in Germany over Christmas. Before I went, I wondered how I would fare around all the delicious Christmas temptations, not to mention the beers, Glühwein, Feuerzangen Bowle, etc. As I already  mentioned, the first week at my sister’s went very well and I even lost another 1.7 kg while staying with her, and that is with enjoying all the treats I wanted to have — but in moderation.


The last 4 days of our trip we stayed at my parents’ house, surrounded by lots of family and even more temptations. I must admit that staying on the straight and narrow was a lot harder there then the previous week had been: Beer or wine was offered to me for both lunch and dinner every day, and when I had one and had finished it, another one was immediately offered to me; meals were often finished with a serving of Schnapps (on top of whatever wine and beer was had with the meal); delicious home made Plätzchen (German Christmas cookies) and home made Stollen were constantly available, on decorative plates in almost every room of the house, and for afternoon coffee, cake was put on in addition to all that. I think you get the idea. And now, when I see all of that, I am not particularly surprised that I was overweight as a teenager, growing up in that sort of environment.

As had been the case when I stayed with my sister the week before, I had made up my mind that I won’t deprive myself, and that I wanted to join in with the festive eating and drinking. This time round, though, I noticed two interesting things. Firstly, I ate more carbohydrate-based foods then in the week before (think Plätzchen, beer & bread rolls), and I noticed that as my diet shifted towards more carbs, I got hungrier. I needed to eat more to feel sated when fuelling my body with carbs than when my intake was heavy on fresh fruit and vegetables, plant-based protein, eggs, and fibre. On my nutrition page there is an interesting video that talks about this in more detail (2nd video from the top). Interestingly (and as noted in that video), I also felt more sluggish while eating like this — I found it harder to motivate myself to exercise, and I often felt tired in the afternoon. Now that I am back home, I actually look forward to shifting my nutritional balance back towards what I now know to be a healthier and more sustainable diet!  I am positively excited about my first Complete shake later today!

The other thing I noticed was the insidious force of habit: When sitting around the table, making conversation with relatives or playing games with my nephews and step-children, those tempting Plätzchen (or sometimes salty nibbles) were never more than an arm’s length away. And I then I noticed that I wanted them. Not because I was hungry, but just because they were there and the context was right. And when I took one, I craved another. However, I also noticed that I actually didn’t need them. I had eaten well and was certainly not hungry, but the habit was calling out, trying to entice me to mindlessly stuff my face with more carbs.  I won’t lie – it wasn’t easy to resist that. I did eat one or two (and occasionally three or four — in line with my determination not to deprive myself!), but it did require willpower and mindfulness to keep it at that.

So, looking back at those two weeks in Germany, I think I learnt a lot about myself and about the interplay between context, conditions, habits, and mindfulness.  It is definitely a lot easier to eat healthily if you create the right conditions — have fresh fruit and vegetables available and have a plan what to do with them.  If there are no sweets in the cupboard (or on nice serving plates in every room), then there can be no temptation to eat them! Context is a powerful vehicle to trigger habits, and a lot of our eating is habitual. However once you have spotted that what’s happening is that you are enacting (and thus feeding) a habit, it is a lot easier to do something about it. It’s still hard, but insight into what’s going on is the first step towards making progress. Having a strong mindfulness practice will go a long way towards helping with that, and if you don’t already practice mindfulness, I strongly suggest you start. I may do another post specifically on mindfulness before too long, but for now, that’s enough!

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2 comments on “Noticing Habits is the First Step towards Breaking them”

  1. Gloria Reply

    great to read this Marc but could you please make the text a bit larger and different colour as I found it very hard to read without changing font size. very interesting to note your comments – must think about that a great deal. hope to talk soon.

    • Marc Reply

      Thanks Gloria — will try to change the font size. Still learning how to use the software and things that ought to be simple like that, turn out to be a hell of a lot more complicated!

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