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The Best New Year Resolution You Could Make

Our guide to creating sustainable healthier habits in 2020.

When you read the words “new year, new you” on any one of a hundred magazine covers, it can seem a daunting prospect. Giving up meat? Taking up Crossfit? That’s a lot of change, all at once. But living a healthier life is easier than you think – and it all starts in your mind. 

According to Professor Eddie Wolff, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Sandton, unhealthy habits are all in your head. “Pre-existing lifestyle patterns are rooted in the in the basal ganglia – the part of your brain involved in coordination of movement. Every habit, good or bad, consists of three components: a cue, a routine and a reward.”

Smoking, drinking, sleeping on the couch – habits are neuronal wired patterns of behaviour that are overlearned and ingrained. The good news, he says: your habits may occur automatically, but they can be changed. 

A habit can be something you do, or something you don’t do. Are you eating takeaways more often than cooking at home? Sleeping in instead of working out? When was the last time you saw a doctor for a routine check-up? These are all patterns of behaviour instigated by your brain to avoid overuse during the course of your day. 

“Getting up in the morning, showering, getting dressed, driving – these are all habits. Behaviours that occur regularly are, in essence, habits. And they all contain a cue, a routine and a reward.” 

Professor Wolff uses the example of the way an unhealthy diet can lead to chronic disease. “Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease – it has genetic components but it’s mostly a lifestyle disease that is exacerbated by unhealthy eating habits.” The reward is sugary or tasty foods, and eventually, the habit leads to a lifestyle disease. 

“But because habits are such powerful, ingrained behaviours, these patients go back to their old eating styles and abandon the new lifestyle or prescribed diet that would help them control the disease,“ he explains. “They fall back on old habits.”

To change your automatic response to a typical cue – seeing a plate filled with salty potato fries, for example – you need to establish new routines and rewards that follow. And it’s not something you can do alone, he says: if the old routine is to eat unhealthy foods that are high in perceived reward, it is crucial that your medical professional addresses your eating behaviour to re-establish a new routine, and for you to establish a new reward. 

Professor Wolff recommends creating a craving for healthy food. “This is so that when you feel the cue you follow a new routine,” he says. Sound impossible? He suggests four simple steps:

  1. Associate unhealthy foods with very bad consequences. (E.g. Type 2 diabetes is associated with blindness, hypertension, liver disease and other chronic health issues).
  2. Associate healthy foods – such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and small portions of protein – with health and good taste in order to make healthy food desirable.
  3. Keep your fridge or cupboards clear of unhealthy foods.
  4. Change your routine to five small, healthy meals a day instead of one, two or three.

And this new mindset change extends beyond what’s on your plate, he says. “Your brain won’t survive if it has to do everything consciously,” he says. “It needs to automate routine behaviours.” The trick is to make healthier habits a part of your daily routine. “If you persist in this new routine for a while, it becomes automatic.