In New Orleans, the holidays tend to last from Halloween until Mardi Gras. Taking a closer look, that’s four months dedicated to festivities and indulgences, making “everything in moderation” harder to manage, simply due to the compounding and frequency of these occasions. When one-third of the year is rooted in once-a-year traditions, it can be especially challenging to be successful at changing any of your behaviors and habits for your long-term health and wellness. You may know that eating king cake regularly, even if only in the short-term, may not be the best for you, but you just can’t seem to overcome it when it’s available. Or maybe you aren’t really needing to have a cocktail, but when attending parades with family and friends, the socializing tends to make you feel the need to participate. It’s true, habits are hard to break.
We often hear that it takes three weeks or about 21 days to change a behavior, and that seems overwhelming to think about. The actual average amount of time it takes to change a behavior is closer to 66 days or two months; it can possibly take a full year! That can be incredibly disheartening as we all tend to want to see results faster.
Rather than getting discouraged on the amount of time it takes to change your habits, try to focus on how to change them. To do so, it’s important to understand how a habit is formed. First, we need a cue or reminder to perform the behavior, then there’s a routine or action and finally there’s a reward from it all. Rather than trying to avoid something altogether, consider trying to make the habit a healthier one.
If king cake is your weakness, the reminder to eat king cake may simply be walking into the break room at work. The routine is picking up a slice and eating it. The reward is the temporary physiological feeling the sugary, comfort food provides of satisfaction or maybe relief from stress at work. You may not be able to avoid the break room, but you can find a healthier alternative to the king cake. The key is that this healthier routine needs to be just as satisfying or the reward portion of the habit will not be fulfilled, and you’ll have a hard time changing this habit into a healthier one. This is where a lot of trial and error may occur, and it’s a good place to implement recommendations like going for a walk with coworkers, which may provide valuable mental health and stress relief. Have a healthier snack alternative available – maybe king cake flavored coffee or lower sugar protein bar – to fill the need for an energizing but tasty snack.
If alcohol is your area to tackle, the cue for this could be anything from walking in the door when you get home from work or it could be more seasonal like attending a Mardi Gras parade. The cue is anything that reminds you automatically – without really thinking about it – to seek out that unhealthy behavior. If your goal is to not drink any alcohol, you need to find a healthier option that provides the same reward. This could be pouring a mocktail, kombucha or any non-calorie, non-alcoholic drink in the same glass you would normally have your beverage. The trick is to make it feel just as festive, have something in your hand and sip on it as you would a cocktail. If you feel just as relaxed at the end of the night or just as sociable at the parade festivities, then you are more likely to change this behavior successfully. If you do not receive the same reward, then you need to find something else to substitute, and that’s okay, what works for one person may not work for someone else.
This year, before you get bogged down with tackling your new year’s resolutions or other goals during Mardi Gras, consider thinking about how you are cued to initiate a habit and what is the reward that you are seeking. Finding healthier habits, while obtaining the same reward, may be just what you are needing to be successful this year with your health and wellness goals!
Rebecca Miller, MPH, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist and shares recipes on her blog, Twisted Nutrition. She can be reached through her blog TwistedNutritionBlog.com or followed on Instagram @RebeccaMillerRDN.