How to Change Your Eating Habits, Or “We Are What We Repeatedly Do”

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Piss Off, Aristotle

Ok, maybe Aristotle knew what he was talking about. Maybe he was a smart guy. Maybe he was one of the most influential thinkers in history.

But was he right about this too? Yes. Yes he was.

Let me tell you a story, one that may sound familiar.


You wake up not with a jolt, but a sigh. What day is it again?

Right, Wednesday. Almost halfway done the workweek. As much as you want to sleep the morning away, debating the cost/benefit of quitting your job entirely to avoid getting out of bed, you sit up, the alarm still mocking you.

You perform the morning ritual. Take a leak, grab a glass of water and slam back your fish oil, flick on the Keurig, hit the showers.

Shampoo the hair, body wash the pits, rinse, fresh body wash for the crotch and behind. The hot water will take care of the rest.

Toothpaste on the toothbrush, get some water on there, cue Instagram.

Protein is important. So no matter what cycle you’re in, you get your big dose with breakfast, meticulously measuring out those egg whites. But let’s be honest. The protein isn’t the star.

It’s the steaming cup of your favorite Arabica bean blonde blend. You don’t even need to taste it to taste it. You take that first hit. It tells you “It’s ok, I got you.” It just mixes so well with that cream and spoonful of sugar – a little more than usual, you’ve earned it.

Fast forward an hour or two.

You walk into work and see your buddy Rog. He walks over and gives you the standardized Covid-19 elbow bump. A couple people in the office are sporting their most fashionable face masks, your standard throw-away surgical having just been liberated from its box with its 100 identical brothers.

Finally, you make it to your desk. The new temp brought in coffee for your division. You’re gonna go far kid. You pour in the cream and sugar.

Lunchtime. You take out your pre-packaged broccoli, chicken and sweet potatoes. Meal prepping is your best friend with such a busy life. Cue the hot sauce.

3:00pm. You’re fading fast. Need…. Pick me up. A couple hours left, then deadlift time. One last cup of Joe. Add that velvety cream and sweet, sweet sugar.

You’ve made it to your favorite part of the day: Gym time. Pull some deadlifts. It was supposed to be 3 sets, 5 reps today, but that dude from marketing you don’t like just walked in. Might as well go for a heavy single that’s offensively heavy. Finish with your accessory back work to balance out all that pressing.

John Schwenker Fitness

Have You Ever Had a Day Like This?

This day may seem familiar to you. Not just the monotony of the average workday, but a day run mostly on autopilot.

Us RFS readers have a well above average understanding of training and nutrition. As did my client (let’s call him Bob,) whose day we just ran through. In his mind, his coffee featuring cream and sugar was his little treat to survive the monotony of the day. He thinks he could be doing worse. He could be having those Frappuccino’s with whipped cream and extra sprinkles after all. What he didn’t consider is that the average medium double-double has anywhere between 6-10g of fat, and 20-30g of sugar per coffee.


So why does Bob do this?

After some self-reflection on his part followed by our discussion, we concluded his findings “This is what I had in my first coffee, 20 years ago.”

That’s all well and good, but what was his excuse for ordering something he knew was not that great for him, the last 20 years? Why did he CHOOSE this coffee approximately 22,000 times?

It’s a Habit.

A conscious decision that was once made (20 years ago in this case,) that the brain no longer has to process. Every time he was in the Dunkin Donuts drive-through he didn’t have some internal dialogue weighing out the pros and cons of the cream and sugar in his coffee. He had his usual, his habit.

A lot of you are probably thinking “well, that’s obvious cream and sugar in your coffee 3x/day is bad.” Why can we say that? We are analyzing it objectively. Even looking at it subjectively, Bob was able to see this wasn’t ideal. The act of looking at your own habits is critical to change them.

We go through much of our lives on autopilot. This is our brain’s way of reducing unnecessary stimuli to save energy for tasks that require more critical thinking.

Saving energy is important. But even as children learn, some habits are good and some are bad. You may have been doing these habits for years, decades even.

How do we change these patterns that have been so deeply ingrained in our brain?

Now that we’ve met Bob, let’s go over how to change a habit. I already gave a hint pointing to what step one of permanent habit change is. So let’s begin with step 1.

Changing Eating Habits Step 1 – Bad Habit Recognition

There are countless habits you could change. Bob changing his coffee habits for instance. Spending too much time watching TV. Too much phone time. Cracking your knuckles. Grinding your teeth Eating the absolute worst foods for your teeth and health just cuz you’re bored. Grinding your teeth. Smoking. Yelling at your cat for doing cat things.

Dammit Pringles, Not again!

Let’s go through an example sticking with our boy Bob.

Bob recognized he has a very clean diet but still isn’t as lean as he wants to be. When Bob and I analyzed his diet, it was glaringly obvious to me he had hundreds of unaccounted for calories in liquid form. I use a very simple tool to allow people to analyze their diets, so they can decide which areas to attack first:

A three-day food journal.

Look it up. It’s a very simple tool to enlighten you on what you actually eat in a day.

This brings us to the “Habit Loop.” Charles Duhigg talks about this subject extensively in his book (which I highly recommend reading for a far more extensive analysis of the habit loop and more.) In the book, he writes that neuroscientists have identified a 3 stage loop of habit formation. Researchers at MIT spent thousands of hours using mice, chocolates, and mazes to create this loop.

The Habit Loop - eating habits

We identified that Bob wants to change his habit of 2 cream and 2 sugar in his coffee. It would be very simple to suggest he eliminate the coffee altogether, or simply remove the cream and sugar. Both options eliminate the calories, but is this the best option for adherence and long term results?


Changing Eating Habits Step 2 – Identify Routine

Now let’s jump into the Habit Loop. It begins with the cue, but I want to first identify the routine as it is normally the most glaringly obvious.

Coffee eating habits

Bob gets his double-double 3x/day. That is his routine. There are many other factors that go with this routine like where he does it, when he does it etc. For simplicity, we are going to stick with Bob having his double-double coffee.

Changing Eating Habits Step 3 – Experiment with Rewards

Personally, I drink coffee primarily during two events. First, when I write. I can’t begin writing until the water is heating up in my Keurig. The second time is social. As a firefighter, all meetings, training sessions, and debriefings are centered around the rookie putting on a fresh pot.

I used to drink my coffee black. Typically, I would drink 3 big mugs worth. Coffee has many health benefits, so I didn’t want to remove it from my diet. The issue for me is these coffees began to aggravate my stomach. I didn’t want to eliminate my coffee, but I was willing to experiment.

Summary of Personal Experiment

Day 1 and 2 – substitute green tea. I had good energy, was clear thinking, and had happy stomach.

Day 3, 4, 5 – substitute hot lemon water (no caffeine). I had some energy and mental aggravation from drinking lemon water, happy stomach.

Day 6 and 7 – substitute cold water. Annoyance from drinking plain water and no energy boost, but ahappy stomach.

Day 8+ – continue different routines

After two weeks of experimentation, it was obvious the coffee was upsetting my stomach (read more on why self-experimentation is so powerful). But, I LOVE coffee and it’s good for me! So with one of my experiments, I decided to drink a cup of water before I had my coffee. That seemed to help. Then, I tried drinking a cup of water after. That helped too. Fast forward a couple days, and I was drinking a cup of water before and after my coffee. Right on the money! My stomach felt great, I increased my hydration, and most importantly I got my brown-eyed girl back.

The Habit Loop ATP

Bob went through a similar experimentation cycle. He truly believed he could start drinking black coffee. I was 100% supportive, but that isn’t where I would have started. I trusted my client. And more importantly he needs to believe in his process. So he began his experimentation.

Day 1 – sub black coffee. Choked it down, hated it, good energy. Day 2 – sub black coffee. Hated it equally as much, good energy. Day 3 – sub black coffee. Had a discussion with me about quitting.

Bob told me he maybe could have stuck to it, maybe not. But he hated it. Something he used to look forward to became a sickening chore.

Enter John.

With my clients, I use a technique I call “micro-changes”. We make small, progressive changes that progress so slowly, the brain doesn’t recognize anything is different (or at least makes it tolerable.)

So, we scaled it back. I laid out his next few days, which he followed to the letter:

Day 4 and 5 – sub 2 cream, 1 sugar, 1 stevia. Good energy, noticed no difference, looked forward to his coffee.

Day 6 and 7 – sub 2 cream, 0.5 sugar, 1.5 stevia. Good energy, noticed no difference, looked forward to coffee

Day 8 and 9 – sub 1 cream, 1 milk, 0.5 sugar, 1.5 stevia. Good energy, noticed slight difference in texture but didn’t mind, looked forward to coffee

Day 10 and 11- sub 2 milk, 2 stevia (we went for it). Good energy, noticed a difference in texture which he didn’t mind, noticed slight aftertaste he thinks is from the stevia but he said he didn’t mind it.

Day 12 and beyond- 2 milk, 2 stevia. His new normal. He loves it as much as his original coffee.

Changing Eating Habits Step 4 – Identify Cues

In the example above, it seems like we solved Bob’s problem. We’ve created a new habit. For this particular habit, we can stop there. We can call that a win.

Since the overall routine isn’t inherently bad, and we don’t want to eliminate it or even reduce occurrences, there is no reason to identify cues.

Cues are what initiate the habit loop. It’s what begins the cycle and triggers the routine. For Bob, it may have been a lack of energy, or he enjoys the mental break, or he does it socially, etc. An example of a habit you may want to reduce or eliminate is binge eating at night.

Anytime you are about to start binge eating, I want you to write down the time, location, mental state, and your most educated guess why you are about to binge eat, or partake in your particular habit. Eventually, you’ll see a pattern and then you can start experimenting with ways to avoid these cues. For example, stress may trigger you. Try meditating for 5 minutes, eating a healthy snack, or doing a hobby you enjoy.

There are a hundred other strategies you can try. Be creative and experiment.

Why is Habit Formation Important?

Believe it or not, there may be a time in your life where you won’t be 100% dialed into your diet and fitness.

You won’t be meal prepping as much, can’t dedicate 5 days a week to the gym. Maybe it’s because you have kids, have a very involved job, don’t have access to the right food or gym equipment. Maybe there’s a global pandemic that’s flipped your life upside down

chances are low of that happening of course…

When that time finally comes, it doesn’t matter if you’re keto, vegan, or do a standard bodybuilder diet. It comes back to your core dietary habits. At some point, most people have a period of lax nutrition and you will be happy your go-to coffee is 2 Stevia and 2 milk. You’ll be happy you have a dose of protein at every meal. You’ll be happy you have a glass of water before you jump in the shower every morning.

In Conclusion – How to Change Your Eating Habits

The steps to changing a habit include:

  1. Bad Habit Recognition – determine what daily habit you want to change.
  2. Identify Routine – what specific part of the routine makes this a bad habit?
  3. Experiment with rewards – what do you get from this? Experiment with changes.
  4. Identify cues – why do you partake in this habit? What situations trigger you?

Choose one habit, decide to devote your time and energy into plugging everything into the habit loop, and make long-lasting changes.

Good luck!


About John

John Schwenker Fitness

John is a firefighter (a sexy firefighter, at that), model, and personal trainer. When not fighting fires or posing for calendars, he spends his days working with online clients ( looking to lose fat or gain muscle through long term habit change. He lives in Niagara Falls, Canada. You can check him out on Instagram, he’s pretty easy on the eyes.

About the Author

John is a firefighter, model, and personal trainer. When not fighting fires or posing for calendars, he spends his days working with online clients ( looking to lose fat or gain muscle through long-term habit change. He lives in Niagara Falls, Canada.

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