“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken” – Warren Buffett
Has the festive season caught up with you? Are you experiencing any of the following symptoms - low energy, low mood, digestive discomfort, bloating? Nowadays more and more people are using January for a detox, but we want to provide you with the tools to be the best version of yourself all year round and help you make lifestyle changes that you can continue with.
We all have hectic lives and quite often find it difficult to prioritise our health and wellbeing, making New Year’s resolutions and then quickly falling back into old habits that aren’t beneficial for us. Additionally, with a common crash diet your body uses a protective mechanism and slows down your metabolism. Consequently, when returning to your normal diet, there can often be a rebound effect which causes an even larger increase in weight.
Everyone knows the fundamentals of how to be healthy – eat more vegetables, drink enough water, sleep well, reduce stress, move your body, and stop smoking. But how can you implement these into your daily routine and create long-lasting habits?
WHAT FORMS A HABIT
The habit loop starts with a cue, the trigger from the environment that tells your brain to go into autopilot. Next is the routine, the action taken after the cue and lastly is a reward which fulfils a craving in your brain. For example, sitting in front of the TV every day after dinner and snacking on chocolates.
Once a habit loop is identified, it becomes much easier to plan on how to change the habit. In today’s society, habits have become reactionary; for example when you wake up feeling unrefreshed, you usually reach for caffeine.
Some simple tips to make breaking a habit easier:
Remove any temptations – fill your cupboards with nutritious foods.
Exercise with a friend and schedule it into your diary – it will be easier if you are expected and promise to support each other.
Batch cooking dinners when you have time to make your evenings more stress-free, and reduce the risk of poor food choices.
Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) involved in craving reward and is also strongly linked to memory, learning and emotion. Food, being essential for survival, is a primary stimulus that can activate rewarding brain circuits through taste, smell and sight.[i] Foods high in sugar and fat are potent rewards and promote eating, even if you’re not hungry. Imagine yourself doing the following experiment: first, try to eat two tablespoons of sugar on its own, next try to eat a large amount of double cream on its own – you are likely to struggle with both. Lastly, try to combine both together (into whipped cream) and eat it – easy? The combination of high fat and high sugar creates a spike in dopamine activity which fills us with a pleasurable sensation, promopting us to reach for those foods more often, which can drive a cycle of overeating.
With repeated exposure to this food reward, the dopamine response adjusts and makes a deeper association with it. For example, even the smell can be a sign of an imminent reward and become a cue.[ii]
Palatability is a major factor controlling feeding behaviour.[iii] Synthetic flavours, found in processed food, not only break the connection between flavour and nutrition, they also set false expectations. Flavour technology fools our brains into experiencing heightened levels of pleasure, increasing dopamine,[iv] without the nutritional benefits.
Dopamine dysfunction has been linked to conditions such as Parkinson’s[v] and schizophrenia, and is also associated with a reduction in food-related reward activity.[vi]
So what can you do to stimulate dopamine and provide reward in a healthy way? Some activities that can stimulate dopamine include:
Listening to music
Getting outside and increasing sun exposure
Increase human contact – give someone a hug!
Take a cold shower
CREATING A NEW LONG-LASTING HABIT
Creating a habit is key to making a change last and habits are formed through context dependant repetition.
Repetition is essential – it can take 15 – 254 days to truly form a new habit.[vii] You can use a habit tracker (easily found online) to see if you can implement some new habits for 30 days consecutively. As time goes on it becomes easier and will soon become automatic.
Baby steps - focus on changing two to three things to start with and once those habits are formed you can start to make more changes.
Avoid late meal times – allowing your body time to digest your food and time for healing and repair as you sleep. Late evening meals can drive higher blood sugar levels after breakfast teh following day[viii], which might cause you to overeat or crave sugar during the day. Dysregulation of hormones involved in appetite might also play a role.[ix]
Leave flavours and colours up to nature and avoid processed foods. Flavour your food with herbs and spices, using fresh where possible.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail – having a plan, known as implementation intention, is linked with long-term habit adherence.[x]
Don’t be hard on yourself – rebrand your failures as ‘not yet’. Give yourself space for failure and accept failure is part of your success.
IS IT ALL ABOUT WILLPOWER?
There are three basic ingredients for effective self-control – a clear goal, monitoring and willpower. Relying on your willpower alone makes you less likely to achieve your intentions and yet it is precisely what we do when we are trying to create new habits.
Research shows that blood glucose levels are an important part of the energy source of self-control. Every time we exert willpower our glucose levels drop, impairing subsequent attempts at self-control.[xi] So are we bound to fail? Our nutrient status could also play a role here, for example, chromium is important in blood sugar regulation and low levels of B vitamins can reduce energy levels, making it harder to exert willpower.
Failures in self-control are more likely when blood glucose levels are low or can’t be mobilised effectively to the brain (i.e. insulin resistance).[xii] Initially, to help regulate your blood sugar levels, you could reduce carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, ensure you are eating protein with every meal, and eat regular, small meals. When things are better controlled you could consider intermittent fasting, which can help with insulin sensitivity.[xiii] Intermittent fasting involves going for extended periods of time without eating and ideally trying to keep your eating window to an eight hour period. This is only recommended under the care of a registered health professional.
As creating new habits can often be challenging, some general supplements can support you on your journey:
A comprehensive Multinutrient with active forms of nutrients – so they are readily absorbed and used by the body.
A daily probioticcan support the whole digestive tract and specific strains can even help with weight management.[xiv] Ensure it is clinically effective, the right dose and free of unnecessary ingredients.
[i] Bassareo and Gambarana. Editorial: Food and its effect on the brain: from physiological to compulsive consumption. Front Psychiatry. 2019; 10:209
[ii] Volkow ND et al. Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity. Trends Cogn Sci. 2011; 15(1):37-46
[iii] Yeomans MR et al. Palatability: response to nutritional need or need-free stimulation of appetite? Br J Nutr. 2004; 92 Suppl 1: S3-14
[iv] McCutcheon JE. The role of dopamine in the pursuit of nutritional value. Pyhsiol Behav. 2015; 152(Pt B): 408-15
[v] Kaasinin V and Vahlberg T. Striatal dopamine in Parkinson Disease: A meta-analysis of imaging studies. Ann Neurol. 2017; 82(6): 873-882
[vi] Frank S et al. Dopamine depletion reduces food-related reward activity independent of BMI. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016; 41(6): 1551-9
[vii] Neal DT et al. The pull of the past: when do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2011; 37(11): 1428-37
[viii] Tsuchida Y et al. Effects of a late supper on digestion and the absorption of dietary carbohydrates in the following morning. J Physiol Anthropol. 2013; 32(1): 9
[ix]St-Onge MP et al. Sleep and meal timing influence food intake and its hormonal regulation in healthy adults with overweight/obesity. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2019; 72(Suppl 1): 76-82
[x] Pirolli P et al. Implementation intention and reminder effects on behaviour change in a mobile health system: A predictive cognitive model. J Med Internet Res. 2017; 19(11): e397
[xi] Gailliot MT et al. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007; 92(2): 325-36
[xii] Gailliot MT and Baumeister RF. The physiology of willpower: linking blood glucose to self-control. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2007; 11(4): 303-27
[xiii] Halberg N et al. Effect of intermittent fasting and refeeding on insulin activity in healthy men. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2005; 99(6): 2128-36
[xiv] Crovesy L et al. Effect of Lactobacillus on body weight and body fat in overweight subjects: a systemic review of randomized controlled clinical trials. Int J Obes (Lond). 2017; 41(11): 1607-1614
[xv] Healy-Stoffel M and Levant B. N-3 (omega-3) fatty acids: Effects on brain dopamine systems and potential role in the etiology and treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2018; 17(3): 216-232
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