A Foundation For Good Eating Habits: Gaining Freedom From Automatic Behaviours

Many of the behaviours we carry out each day are automatic- this has great advantages, as it enables us to get through the day without having to put conscious effort into everything we do, which makes life a lot easier. But sometimes our behaviours become so automatic that we might not even be aware that we’re doing them. Take eating, for example- the process of eating is so automatic because we do it several times a day, every day. Unfortunately, many automatic eating behaviours can get in the way of establishing good eating habits.

We Like What’s Familiar

A Foundation For Good Eating Habits: Gaining Freedom From Automatic BehavioursWe might have a tendency to do something simply because we’ve always done it. As human beings we tend to feel comfortable with, and in control of, what’s familiar. We might enjoy carrying out certain behaviours repeatedly, but when it comes to eating, they can result in excess food intake or poor food choices. For example, we might eat the same breakfast cereal because it’s what we’ve always done, or we might always eat a dessert because that’s what we’ve done since childhood. When things are familiar, it means we don’t have to think, or make a conscious effort- this is understandable when we lead hectic lives, but doing things on autopilot to a large extent can result in unhelpful eating behaviours, such as buying and eating the same unhealthy foods all of the time.

Behaviour Chains

A particular location can trigger us to eat, as can a certain daily routine. As a result we can end up eating according to certain ‘behaviour chains’, whereby we eat or drink in response to a certain activity or sequence of activities. Common behaviour chains include getting home from work, taking your coat off, putting the kettle on and grabbing the biscuit tin, or going to the cinema and having popcorn, or sitting down on a the sofa, switching the TV on and opening a beer. If we’re trying to establish good eating habits, certain behaviour chains can be so engrained, and so automatic, that it can be hard to break out of them.

Yo-Yo Dieting

Another common automatic behaviour is yo-yo dieting. Many people, particularly women, experience dissatisfaction with their shape or weight. As a result, many women get into an unhelpful habit of going on a diet, and it’s common for people to automatically embark on a strict calorie- counting diet. Such strict diets are unsustainable, and although a person might initially lose weight, they tend to find that they can’t maintain the strict diet and give up completely. A particular problem is dieting in ‘perfect mode’, whereby if a person eats just one thing they shouldn’t, they feel they’ve blown the diet, causing them to believe that they’ve ruined it- they then give up the diet completely. This inflexible attitude towards losing weight is very common, resulting in an automatic, life-long behaviour of yo-yo dieting, and getting caught in this trap can make it hard to establish good eating habits due to this ‘black and white’ approach to eating.

Automatic Eating When We’re Not Hungry

It can be so easy to eat on automatic pilot without considering exactly what, how and why we’re eating, and a lack of awareness of our eating can make it hard to achieve good eating habits.  Our eating can be so automatic that we might not be considering whether we’re actually hungry- eating when we’re not hungry can lead us to a range of unhelpful eating behaviours such as eating to the point of bursting, always eating dessert when we never actually need it, giving in easily to food when offered it by others, eating second helpings, and eating other people’s leftovers. We might automatically eat at high speed, and fast eating is strongly linked to overeating.

Eating To Cope

A Foundation For Good Eating Habits: Gaining Freedom From Automatic BehavioursAnother automatic behaviour that can make it difficult to achieve good eating habits is using food to help us cope. Food can have a distracting and calming effect, which is why many people comfort eat. A person might automatically reach for a chocolate bar when they’re feeling stressed or upset, and this automatic ‘ritual’ can lead to an overdependence on food. Some people are ‘grazers’, causing them to pick at food throughout the day even though they’re not hungry. They might do this not only when feeling stressed or upset, but when feeling bored or lonely. Some people find that time alone is a ‘danger zone’ for them, as they find themselves automatically reaching for food. Some people have an unhealthy preoccupation with food, whereby they are almost always thinking about food.  It’s also common to come up with automatic excuses to eat, which might be something to do with their over-reliance on food, such as ‘I can’t let it go to waste’, ‘I deserve it because I’ve had a hard day’ or ‘I need this’.

Breaking Free From Automatic Behaviours: Awareness

A Foundation For Good Eating Habits: Gaining Freedom From Automatic BehavioursAwareness is key to achieving good eating habits. With automatic behaviours, we tend to be on a ‘default’ setting and we’re often unaware of how and why we behave. If you can start observing yourself and understanding your motivations to eat, this can be a great start to creating change. It can help to ask family members and friends how they observe your eating- perhaps they could help you to identify areas you could work on, such as eating quickly or portion sizes. It’s important to work on increasing your awareness of your eating behaviours, especially those you might do on automatic pilot. With increased awareness, comes change.


It’s easy to start a diet with the aim of rigidly following it according to the rules of that particular weight loss regime. But before you attempt to lose weight it’s important to prioritise developing good eating habits, because any unhelpful automatic eating habits will only get in the way of your weight loss attempts. Those eating habits may stem from unhelpful thoughts, attitudes and beliefs about food, eating or yourself. Once you’ve built a solid foundation of good eating habits, you’re more likely to succeed in your weight loss efforts.

Anticipating What’s To Come

A Foundation For Good Eating Habits: Gaining Freedom From Automatic BehavioursIf you know you have a tendency to eat on automatic pilot, it can help if you think ahead so that you can work out strategies for dealing with food. Being aware of how you might normally respond to food options, and arming yourself with a ‘toolbox’ of strategies ready to use can help you to make food choices you won’t regret. So if you have a tendency to snack excessively at 9pm when watching your favourite TV programme, rather than allowing yourself to carry out your usual automatic behaviour of eating non-stop throughout the programme, you could decide in advance what and how much you plan to eat. Social eating such as meals in restaurants and buffets are another way in which you can plan what you will eat and avoid before the event. This will help you to avoid making spontaneous food choices you would normally make on autopilot, and normally end up regretting.  Screen your day for potential food challenges and problems that might arise, and make some conscious food decisions in advance, to help you to steer away from your usual automatic behaviours.

Be More Flexible In Your Approach

Achieving successful weight loss through good eating habits requires flexible thinking. It’s easy to be rigidly strict when trying to lose weight, to give yourself strict rules that you must follow exactly; but if your standards are too high and you break one of the rules, it can be easy to give up completely- a common and automatic response. Learn to regard any dietary lapse as exactly that (a blip), and not a relapse (a situation where you regard yourself as having completely failed, thus putting you back to square one). Learn to embrace new, more flexible eating habits, rather than sticking to those default, rigid habits that are doing you no good.


Learn to monitor your eating, whether through a food diary or by discussing your eating habits with someone. Self-monitoring can help you to become more aware of certain behaviours you weren’t aware of, but which you may have been doing on automatic pilot for years. Look at not just what you’re eating but how and why you’re eating. If you think that you do a lot of comfort eating and are overly reliant on food, then a useful exercise is to identify whether a lot of your eating is due to  eating automatically in response to certain emotions, and less in response to actual hunger, and then thinking about non-food alternatives to help you cope.

Our automatic behaviours might have been with us for most of our lives, so it’s important to remember that change takes time- keep practising, and expect a bumpy ride- don’t expect perfection. Above all, be patient with yourself!

If you feel you could benefit from my Mindful Eating service, give me a call (Emma Randall) on 07961 423120, or email me: info@mindfuleating.org.uk. I’m based in Lightwater, Surrey. I also offer Skype sessions.

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