21 days of breaking habits

Yesterday was the 21st day of my breaking/making new habits with sugar challenge. I would like to be able to say that I went a complete 21 days without refined sugar, but I’d be lying: I had a piece of chocolate cake at a family party on day 13. And I had a glass of wine on day 19. So, I almost went 21 days without refined sugar or wine.

Here’s what I learned about myself and my habit loops:

#1. If I can’t see it, I won’t eat it. As long as there is no sugar in my house, I’m golden. In fact, after 8-9 days without sugar, I forgot to keep track of my post-its. Half of them are still stuck to my computer screen:


I’ve been so busy with school over the last few weeks that it hasn’t even occurred to me to find sugar to eat. There’s no time. Given how little I can eat out, there’s little temptation to have sugar because so many sweets contain gluten, dairy and/or soy. However, I’ve realized if I can eat it, I will. If C buys chocolate I can eat, I want to eat it. All of it. I want to eat the entire bar in one night. If I make myself chocolate, I want to eat it. Every meal. Including breakfast. If there’s wine in the house, I want a glass or two every night.

Interestingly enough, this is also true with non-sugary foods: I have a hard time not eating an entire container of hummus and bag of carrots over the course of one day. Or lemon Larabars: if I buy an entire box, it’s likely that during a busy day, I’ll eat 3 of them and call that breakfast, lunch, and snack. I realize that’s not ideal, which is why I have stopped buying boxes of Larabars and large containers of hummus. It is also why I haven’t made chocolate in a month. This is the current state of the side door pocket in my car: there’s about 5 Larabar wrappers in there from eating on the go for the last 2 weeks.


#2. The most common cue for my habitual consumption of sugar and wine is social: I want to eat sugar and drink wine the most when I’m with people. I’m happy to have realized this about myself. I ate chocolate cake on day 13 for many social reasons: it was specially made and ordered so my sister and I could eat it; we were at a family gathering and celebrating a special family event; we were drinking coffee; it looked amazing. I don’t regret eating it. However, when I got a stomach ache later, I did regret eating 2 pieces and the frosting off the side of the cake plate. This made me realize how little control I force myself to have when sugar is in front of me. Clearly, more work needs to be done in the control-yourself arena.

Avoiding refined sugar was much easier than avoiding wine. We live in the city and are very social people. I’ve been to 3 birthday bashes in the last 10 days and out with friends a few times. I enjoy drinking wine when I’m with my friends. It was a bit hard to not indulge, but I found that I slept much better nights I only had a little bit of whiskey instead of a glass or two of wine and better yet when I had nothing but water and herbal teas. My body was really happy about this.

My second most common cue was my emotions: When I ate the cake, I felt like I didn’t really care that I was trying to avoid sugar. I justified it by thinking: Well, I’m not going to have this again for a long time, so whatever. I’ll eat a lot of it. Even though while I was eating it, I was thinking about how I might get a stomach ache, I just convinced myself I wouldn’t regret it later. But then I did. You would think I would learn from these stomach ache lessons…

I’ve decided to continue to avoid refined sugar and wine. My body feels better with out it. I think the last 21 days have made me realize that the less I’m around it, the less I think about it and the less I crave it. I haven’t felt like eating sugar at all lately, which is a new feeling. And I think that the less I consume it on a regular basis, the more I’ll enjoy the few times I actually do eat sugar.

I do miss wine, but not having it in the house has made it easier to avoid and not letting myself order it when out has gotten easier. I think that if I continued to limit wine to dinner with friends, I’ll have more consistent sleep patterns. I think the challenge with wine will be when spring finally comes and we are outside more because I love rosé, which is loaded with sugar. My next challenge will be attempting moderation.

the habit loop: research on changing your habits

I’ve become very curious about how we develop habits–the good kinds and the bad kinds. My good friend Meredith researches nutrition and pregnancy at Cornell University, and after reading my blog post yesterday,  she sent me a few research articles on developing habits. I’m in the process of reading through them, and I’m learning a lot about what habits are and how we form them. So, I thought I’d share a wee bit of what I’m learning about the science of habit formation and the practical things we can do to develop new habits, particularly in relation to food.

In a nutshell: A habit is a pattern of behavior that we engage in without thinking about it. Habits allow our brains to save mental energy, thereby reserving more energy for performing more complicated tasks. Research has demonstrated that our brain helps us determine when to let a habit kick in rather than letting decision-making guide our behaviors. Research out of Duke University suggests that 40% of the actions we take every day are not “decisions” but habits. 40%! I thought I had far less habits than that but I guess when I think about what I do every day, most of the routine stuff happens on automatic pilot.

One of the articles explores Charles Duhigg’s New York Times best seller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and BusinessThe gist of the book is that if we can understand our habits, we can break old ones and make new ones. Duhigg’s says this requires that we understand the three-step habit loop. I made this little diagram for y’all to keep in mind when you’re thinking about the habits you have:


The habit loop has 3 steps:
Step 1: the cue
*The cue is that “trigger” that tells your brian to go into automatic mode: to use a habit (rather than a decision-making process) in response to the situation you are in.

Step 2: routine
*The routine is the physical behavior, mental reaction/way of thinking, or the emotional response that is performed in response to the cue.

Step 3: reward
*The reward “helps the brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering” for future situations.

The argument goes that loops become even more automatic with time; the cue and reward “become increasingly linked to create a powerful sense of anticipation” so that a craving is created. The result: a habit is formed. Once something becomes a habit, your brain no longer fully participates in the decision-making. Unless you fight the habit, an automatic response will occur. Duhigg argues that the goal of changing habits is changing these automatic response patterns we’ve developed.

Soooooo, how exactly do we do this? Duhigg argues that we can alter our habits if we take specific steps to mess with our automatic responses. He suggests the following 4 steps, which I’ll explain here in relation to my own habits eating sugar:

Step 1: Identify the routine or behavior you want to change
I want to stop eating refined sugar when I am craving it. I want to stop drinking wine 4-5 nights a week. 

Step 2: Experiment with rewards: Try different rewards when you have a craving and write down your feelings after you have rewarded yourself.
I haven’t listed out my possible rewards for refined sugar, but avoiding wine at night: I’ve been “rewarding” myself with cups of herbal tea and sweet oranges.

Step 3: Isolate the cue.
Research suggests that common cues for habitual behavior are: location, time, emotional state, who else is around, and the action immediately preceding the cue. Paying attention to these cues is key.
Taking Duhigg’s suggestion, I’m going to write down what these 5 cues are for me every time I have a craving for sugar for a week, starting today. This might help me develop a better understanding of what cues my habitual behavior. 

Step 4: Have a plan.
Duhigg suggests that plans are important, and I couldn’t agree more. Planning meals ahead when you have food intolerances is key. If you know you have a craving or a habit at the same time every day, plan to reward yourself by doing something different at that same time. (i.e. I want to drink wine in the evening. Instead, I reach for tea instead of wine at that time.) Over time, you’ll begin to forget about the old habits and begin to develop new routines and better habits.
My current plan: Keep up with the fruit and herbal tea routine at the same time in the evening when I would rather drink a glass of wine. 

I’m really excited to see if I go about being very deliberate about breaking my sugar habit, what other habits I will discover in the process and what new habits I will create. Trying Duhigg’s approach feels more structured to me, which I need right now in my life, given how hectic my semester is. What I’m most curious about is how I justify having sugar when I want it. I think paying attention to 2 & 3 will be key for me.

If you join me in this endeavor, let me know what kind of success you have!