Most people have heard that it takes 21 days to form or break a habit, but the research isn’t as simple as that. In fact, that anecdote is based on an old research study for plastic surgery patients — and likely not relevant to wellness habits.
With nutrition and eating habits in particular, many people run into barriers when they try to change… and true habit change might take longer than 21 days.
When trying to change eating habits, many people struggle with overeating, cravings, choosing too many processed foods, knowledge gaps about what to eat, or lack of time or motivation to prepare healthy foods.
In my work as an RD, I like to meet my clients where they are to change their eating habits. We start by reviewing what, how much, when, and why they eat the way they do. Then, we work together to find areas to improve. Often, this means changing old habits and cultivating new healthier habits that support a more balanced, nutritious diet — or even lead to weight loss.
Read on to learn more about habit change research and the 10 habits I recommend to people who want to lose weight.
Why People Struggle to Eat a Healthy Diet
Habit change takes time and consistency, and some people give up too soon or start too big with their goals.
People struggle to make lasting diet changes for a variety of reasons. Changing nutrition habits can be hard due to:
Lack of motivation to start a new habit
High levels of stress
Limited time or resources
Lack of knowledge
Overwhelm about where to start
Delayed eating, then being so hungry that healthy choices aren’t what you crave
Lack of support from partners or friends.
What Works for Real People
For people of any age, gender, or background, it’s best to focus on the basics when trying to change eating habits. When I’m working with clients, I always start with a full diet review. Usually, there are habits that can be formed or improved in one of these key areas:
Amounts of sugary drinks or sugary food items
Lack of enough vegetables and fruits
Not choosing whole grains and complex carbohydrates
Lack of adequate amounts of protein
Takeout or fast food versus cooking at home
Not choosing healthy fats, or the right amounts of fats.
While the list above may seem overwhelming, it’s OK to start small. Depending on a person’s readiness to change, they can choose one to three small habits or goals to work on first. When that first habit or goal feels more natural or easier, it’s time to work on other habits.
Implementing small changes over time is usually what works best for lasting change.
As proof, consistent healthy habits seem to help people in the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) maintain their weight loss. The NWCR is a group of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and maintained it for one year.
Of the people in the registry:
78% eat breakfast every day
90% exercise for about 1 hour per day on average
62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.
Research-backed Habit Strategies That Work
The American Psychological Association defines a habit as, “a well-learned behavior or automatic sequence of behaviors that is relatively situation-specific, and over time has become motorically reflexive and independent of motivational or cognitive influence.”
Translation: A habit is the same behavior repeated over and over that you can perform without even realizing it.
Once you make a behavior or action a habit, you’re no longer using much conscious thought to perform the habit. At this point, you don’t have to rely on a lot of motivation or attention.
Examples of habits that don’t require much thought include buckling your seat belt every time you get in your car or turning the coffee pot on after getting out of bed every morning. You don’t think about the action, you just do it based on the context of getting in the car or entering the kitchen at a certain morning hour.
In one study on habit-based weight loss intervention, participants were randomized to a control group or an intervention that consisted of incorporating 10 simple diet and activity behaviors. They were encouraged to repeat the behaviors in certain contexts, such as standing up for 10 minutes every hour or eating meals at the same times every day. At 32 weeks, the people in the intervention group had lost an average of 3.8 kg, or about 8 pounds, and participants reported that the new habits felt automatic. While 54% of participants lost five percent of their body weight, participants rated the intervention as “easy” and “pleasant.” Research is clear that consistency is necessary to form a new habit, but the degree of consistency isn’t yet known. If you miss one instance of the habit or behavior, all is not lost, but stopping the habit for a length of time, like a week, could stop your progress.
One key study suggests that forming new habits can take an average of ~66 days, or ~10 weeks.
Put simply, to change a habit successfully:
Pick one habit or behavior as your focus
Plan when and where you’ll do it
Perform the habit almost every time you’re in that place at the chosen time
Repeat the action for about 66 days or 10 weeks.
10 Healthy Eating Habits to Improve Your Diet
Automate your weekly grocery shopping with a recurring delivery of a basic list of healthy food options. Popular delivery apps like Instacart allow you to set up recurring orders. If you add staple nutritious foods, such as eggs, meat or vegetarian protein choices, vegetables, fruits, unsweetened Greek yogurt, sparkling water, and 100% whole grain bread, you’ll always have healthy basics on hand. You can always add more items or pick up other things later in the week.
Eat at fairly set times for meals, so you don’t skip a meal and end up starving and unable to make healthy choices later. Meals can be very simple, but aim to eat something nutritious and balanced at each of your planned meal times.
To make sure you eat more fruits and vegetables, add a fruit or vegetable to every single meal. Add spinach to an egg or tofu scramble at breakfast, a side salad to lunch, and a cup of sauteed mushrooms or roasted Brussels sprouts to dinner.
Increase water intake by pairing the habit with certain times. Have a glass of water as soon as you wake up in the morning, with each meal, or in place of each sugary drink that you would normally consume.
Pack a meal every night for lunch the next day, even if you work from home. A meal can be as simple as a basic sandwich (turkey and cheese or peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread), a piece of fruit, whole grain crackers, and baby carrots.
Pick a night of the week for some basic food prep so you always have quick food options available. Chop two to three types of vegetables, peel and chop two to three fruits, and cook a batch of whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice. If this seems like too much effort, pick up some pre-chopped vegetables, salad kits, or freezer bags of steamable vegetables that week.
Find a new cookbook or blog with healthy recipes and try a new recipe one set night per week, such as Sunday evenings. Learn how to make basics that add extra flavor and interest to basic meals, such as a vinaigrette or herby sauce that would make a side of vegetables or a simple home-cooked meal taste special.
Eat a protein-rich snack every afternoon at a certain time so you’re not starving by dinner time. Try a serving of Greek yogurt with berries, a handful of almonds, or a cup of edamame.
Eat a piece of fruit after dinner every evening to increase your fruit intake.
If you like to drink cold water, put your water bottle in the refrigerator every evening before bed so you wake up to a chilled bottle every morning.
Making positive changes to eating habits isn’t always easy, but research shows that habit change is possible by repeating actions or behaviors in specific contexts over time. When you’re making changes, start small. Consider choosing one habit to work on until it feels easy or even automatic before adding in another for lasting change.
Still feeling overwhelmed? An expert can help! Reach out to a registered dietitian, check out the Kickoff app’s nutrition features, or learn how you can work with a certified expert to change your eating habits.