In this series of Fasting Basics, we’re discussing the three main roadblocks that prevent people from fasting successfully. Last time, we discussed some tips for managing stress. In Part 2, we’re going to focus on how deeply ingrained habits can cause us to struggle.
What are habits?
Habits are things we do automatically. We don’t think, we just act– like we’re on autopilot. Examples of common habits are brushing your teeth when you wake up or driving your car to work. These are things we’ve done so many times our bodies are now just passive participants as we roll through the motions.
You shouldn’t beat yourself up if you struggle with adjusting your habits – it’s hard. I can’t tell you how many people have come back and told me they purchased low-fat yogurt and didn’t realize it until they got home and unloaded their groceries. For years, they were told low-fat yogurt was good for them, so each time they went to the store they put it in their cart. You can’t change this overnight. But, the good news is, you can over time.
There are three parts to habit formation: a cue, behaviour and a reward. An example would be getting into an argument, becoming stressed out (cue), eating a pizza (behaviour), and feeling happy (reward).
The problem with habits is you can never change them but you can modify them! Every time you experience stress (the cue), your body is going to want you to act to reduce that stress (the reward). But the good news is, you can always change your behavioural response to the cues.
How to change your actions
I used to get extremely upset when I got stuck in traffic during my Tuesday evening commute that I’d stop to buy French fries on my way home to help lift my spirits before grumpy Megan got home and alienated her family. Well, traffic on Tuesdays across highway 401 in Toronto was only getting worse, and I was becoming more irate week by week, but I was also becoming fat and diabetic. I couldn’t continue to eat fries to calm myself down, and I certainly didn’t want to alienate my family.
Taking an action that wasn’t eating was out of the question at this point. I was such a regular at one drive-thru the woman who worked the 6 PM shift called me ‘baby doll.’ Also, I was saturated with insulin and hungry all the time. By the time I became diabetic even things like date cookies, which previously grossed me right out, seemed appealing.
What could I eat on the way home to calm myself down until I could fast enough to drive my insulin levels down? The answer for me was bacon! I love bacon! And I loved it hot, warm and cold. This flexibility to eat bacon at any temperature gave me a crutch until I could sort myself out hormonally.
I would throw pounds of bacon on extra-large cookie sheets and bake them in the oven every few days, then I’d take five slices with me in a container to save for my drive home on Tuesdays. I’d wait until I couldn’t take the traffic anymore, and I’d open my container of bacon and go to town!
As I healed my insulin resistance, I was able to move from bacon to dill pickles (no sugar) to a cup of jasmine tea.And that’s when I was able to start fasting on Tuesdays and give myself more flexibility with my fasting schedule.
Now, this certainly isn’t easy. It takes about three weeks before you can alter your actions to the cues before the habit becomes adjusted. This means, for three weeks, you need to be consciously aware of things you’ve programmed yourself to be consciously unaware of. But with dedication, you can alter your habits in order create healthier ones.
Common habits around eating
There are a few main habits people struggle with most: stress eating, lunch time, family dinners and watching other people snack. Below we’ll discuss why each is problematic and share some of our top tips for changing up our actions!
If you’re feeling stressed out, it’s very hard to fast. This isn’t just driven by your emotional desire to reduce your stress, but also by our physiology. When we’re stressed our body produces cortisol, our primary stress coping hormone, which can drive both our blood sugar levels and appetite through the roof!
Try these tips to help you manage stress eating:
- Substitute your unhealthy go-to stress food with a healthier option, such as bacon, dill pickles, olives, hard boiled eggs, charcuterie meat, macadamia nuts, a square of 85% or greater dark chocolate or some berries with cream
- Move to reduce your stress by joining a yoga class, hitting the gym, gardening or simply going for a walk
- Call a friend or family member who makes you smile and catch-up
- Take a relaxing bath or shower
- Meditate or perform deep breathing exercises
When the clock turns 12:00 PM, you want to go for lunch.If you think about it, you might just really want a break from your work. Seeing the clock hit mid-day is your cue that it’s break time, and you want your actions to result in feeling refreshed and focused. For years you’ve taken the action of eating lunch to achieve your break, but are you even hungry?
When lunch time rolls around, ask yourself if you’re actually hungry or if you just need a break. If you just need a break, then try some of the following activities instead:
- Grab a coffee or tea and go for a nice walk
- Change your scenery and read a book or listen to a podcast
- Meditate in a quite space
Connecting with family
Most of us don’t get the chance to spend their days with their spouse, partner or children. When everyone piles into the home after work or school there’s a strong desire to relax and reconnect with our loved ones, and many people think this needs to be done around a meal at the table.
Now, communal feeding isn’t some crazy conspiracy produced by the processed food industry. Humans have been socializing and building communities around feasting since the beginning of time. This is one habit that runs very deep!But the truth is, there are many ways to connect with your loved ones at the end of the day.
Try some of these ideas the next time you want to skip an evening meal:
- Pour broth in a bowl and eat it with a spoon while your family eats dinner (maybe for the more advanced faster)
- Suggest on going on a pre-dinner walk to decompress and connect
- Play a game or put together a puzzle after they eat dinner
Watching other people snack
It’s hard to sit and work at your desk when the person across from you is scarfing down a package of cookies, or at night when your family is passing around the bag of potato chips as you watch TV. Accepting a cookie or two from your office mate or partaking in evening snacking with family are habitual actions.
You don’t need to isolate yourself from the world in order to fast and be successful. However, there’s a period of adaptation that needs to occur before you can easily turn down those cookies or chips. Instead of aiming for perfection right from the start, try to make these changes:
- Snacking isn’t ideal but it might be better to keep some “safe” options, such as sliced veggies or deviled eggs, in the office or pantry until you feel like you have better control over your appetite
- Have some bone broth or low-carb vegetables broth on hand
- Try out a variety of herbal teas to change things up from drinking water and coffee
In our next post, we’ll discuss managing the physical side effects of fasting.
Megan Ramos, Co-founder, The Fasting Method
By The Fasting Method
For many health reasons, losing weight is important. It can improve your blood sugars, blood pressure and metabolic health, lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. But it’s not easy. That’s where we can help.
By Jason Fung, MD
Jason Fung, M.D., is a Toronto-based nephrologist (kidney specialist) and a world leading expert in intermittent fasting and low-carb diets.