It’s 10 PM and you’re thinking about going to bed soon, but the ice cream in your freezer is calling your name. Again. You know it’s not great for you, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to end the evening—any evening, for that matter—without a big bowl.
That’s when you know you have a food habit. And anyone who’s ever been held hostage by a daily craving for ice cream (or peanut butter cups, or potato chips, or diet soda) knows just how hard it is to break free.
The good news: No matter how much you think a food has infiltrated your life, you can break up with it—and kick it out of your life for good. We reached out to weight loss expert Georgie Fear, RD, author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss, for these six proven strategies that can end any bad-eating habit for good. Buh-bye, Chubby Hubby.
1. Turn a blind eye.
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Sometimes it’s as simple as getting trigger foods out of sight. “One tip that works for people is creating a visual barrier, such as putting the food you don’t want to eat under tinfoil instead of plastic wrap, so that plate of brownies isn’t staring you in the face,” Fear says. Otherwise, every time you walk into the kitchen they’re like, ‘Hey! Take a bite!'” Even better? Keep trigger foods in the pantry. People who keep treats like cookies, chips, cereal, and soda on their kitchen counters weigh up to 29 pounds more than people who keep counters clear, according to research from Cornell University.
2. Create roadblocks to rendezvous.
The harder it is to get that daily candy bar, the less likely you are to go after it, Fear says. All you have to do set up a simple roadblock between you and that food. “If you want potato chips, tell yourself that you have to go to the store and get a single-serving bag,” she says. “Now you have to really want them bad enough to get in the car and go for a trip. Or if you get them from the vending machine, don’t carry cash on you whatsoever. If you don’t have cash, you’re out of luck.” Research supports the theory, too: Office workers ate nine candies per day when a candy dish was on their desk, but only four per day when it was moved to a table 6 feet away, one study found. That means that adding just one inconvenient step—getting up and walking to a different table—reduced consumption by more than 50%.
3. Don’t even think about abstinence.
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Experts say that when it comes to quitting tempting foods, going coldturkey doesn’t work. “People say, ‘I’m going to give up sugar completelyfor a month, and then I’ll be able to be eat it in moderation.’ Well, if you aren’t moderate now, after a period of abstinence, it’s even harder to be moderate,” Fear says. “We all know what happens to the Easter basket after you give up sugar for Lent.” Instead, make small reductions that you know you can actually achieve—like putting one packet of sugar of yourcoffee instead of two, or eating dessert just three times a week instead of every night. “You can always take the next step and reduce even more in another week or two,” Fear says.
4. Tell yourself you’re awesome—not matter what.
Any amount of change is a good amount of change, Fear says, so don’t think you’re a failure if you can’t immediately break a bad habit. “Just look for any amount of improvement in your old habit,” she says. “Instead of eating 10 slices of pizza, you had four. Or look for a decrease in the frequency of the habit, so instead of bingeing on chips three times this month, you only did it twice.” Even if the progress is small, you’re still winning.
5. Don’t punish yourself if you go back.
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We all know how it feels when we get back together with our habitual foods in a moment of desperation. “The gut reaction many of us have is to say, ‘You’re so stupid! I can’t believe you did it again!'” Fear says. “But that undermines our confidence and we start to feel like a failure. And a lot of times, when we feel like a failure is when we don’t behave well around food.” How can you ditch the negative self-talk? “When you slip up, acknowledge that you tried, that you can do better, and that tomorrow—or at the next meal—you’ll try again.” It also helps to lower the stakes a little bit: “If you expect that you’ll make errors along the way, you won’t be as frustrated when they happen,” she concludes.
6. Use inner strength, not material things, to end it for good.
Once you’ve stopped punishing yourself for slip-ups, start rewarding yourself for your progress, says Fear. But using material rewards, like a pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing for months, isn’t ideal. “After you meet your goal and you get the shoes, you may find that your motivation goes up in smoke, because you were only doing it for the shoes.” A better way? “I encourage people to give themselves the intrinsic reward of recognizing how it feels to make progress on breaking your habit.” When you stride by the vending machine without a second glance, spend a moment focusing on how good you feel. “Giving yourself a little high five can really keep you going, even if it sounds silly,” she says.