Steps for Improving Your Eating Habits

Key Points

  • Healthy eating is important for maintaining a healthy weight and general health.
  • Improving your eating habits requires a thoughtful approach.
  • Three steps are to reflect, replace, and reinforce.
A woman writes in a journal.


Healthy eating is important for maintaining a healthy weight and general health.

When it comes to eating, many of us have developed habits. Some eating habits are good, such as drinking water instead of sugary drinks. However, some are not so good, such as rewarding yourself with dessert after a hard day of work. Even if you've had the same eating pattern for years, it's not too late to make improvements.

Making sudden, radical changes, such as eating nothing but cabbage soup, can lead to short-term weight loss. However, such radical changes are neither healthy nor a good idea and won't be successful in the long run. Permanently improving your eating habits requires a thoughtful approach in which you:

  • Reflect on your eating habits.
  • Replace unhealthy eating habits with healthier ones.
  • Reinforce your new, healthier eating habits.


Create a list of your habits

For a few days, write down everything you eat and drink, including sugary drinks and alcohol. Write down the time of day you ate or drank the item. This will help you uncover your habits. This diary may help.

Note how you felt when you decided to eat, especially if you were not hungry. Were you tired? Stressed?

Highlight the habits that lead you to overeat and pick a few to work on.

Common eating habits that can lead to eating too much in a day are:

  • Eating too fast
  • Eating standing up
  • Always cleaning your plate
  • Eating when not hungry
  • Always eating dessert
  • Skipping meals, even if you just skip breakfast.

Create a list of cues by reviewing your food diary

Look at the habits you highlighted. Identify triggers that cause you to engage in those habits. This will help you become more aware of when and where you eat for reasons other than hunger. Note how you typically feel at those times. These common environmental cues or emotions can encourage eating when not hungry:

  • Opening the cabinet and seeing unhealthy snack food.
  • Watching television.
  • Being in a stressful meeting at work
  • Having no idea what's for dinner.
  • Seeing a plate of doughnuts at a meeting.
  • Feeling bored or tired and thinking food might offer a pick-me-up.

Circle the cues you face daily or weekly

While the Thanksgiving holiday may be a trigger to overeat, focus on cues you face more often. Eventually, plan for as many eating cues as you can.

Ask yourself these questions for each cue:

Is there anything I can do to avoid the cue or situation?
This option works best for cues that do not involve others. For example, could you choose a different route to work to avoid the habit of stopping at a fast-food restaurant?

For things I can't avoid, can I do something differently that would be healthier?
If you can't avoid the situation, evaluate your options. During work meetings, could you suggest or bring healthier snacks or beverages? Could you offer to take notes to distract your attention?


Replace unhealthy habits with new, healthy ones

Minimize distractions

Minimize distractions, such as watching the news while you eat. Such distractions keep you from paying attention to how quickly and how much you're eating.

Eat slowly

If you eat too quickly, you may clean your plate instead of paying attention to whether your hunger is satisfied.

You may realize that you eat too fast when you eat alone. If so, share a lunch each week with a colleague. Or, have a neighbor over for dinner one night a week. Another strategy is to put your fork down between bites.

Eat only when you're truly hungry

This will help you avoid eating when you are tired or anxious. Try to find a non-eating activity to do instead. You may find a quick walk or phone call with a friend can help you feel better.

Plan meals ahead of time

This will help ensure you eat a healthy well-balanced meal.


Reinforce your new, healthy habits

Habits take time to develop, so be patient with yourself.

If you engage in an unhealthy habit, stop as quickly as possible and ask yourself: Why do I do this? When did I start doing this? What changes do I need to make?

Remember to pat yourself on the back for the things you're doing right. Maybe you started eating more vegetables or drinking low-fat or fat-free milk. Recognizing your successes will encourage more changes.

Be careful not to berate yourself or think that one mistake blows a whole day's worth of healthy habits. Keep working to build healthy eating habits one day at a time.


Tips for Keeping the Weight Off

Steps for Losing Weight

Eating Disorders

Food Assistance and Food System Resources

Several food assistance resources are available for individuals and organizations in everyday situations as well as before, during, and after emergencies and disasters.