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Hack you subconscious brain & develop better habits for nutrition

Today we will review the value of understanding how habits are formed, why our brains go into “auto mode” and how we can rewire our brain to help develop better habits over time.

I am sure you have heard plenty of times that 90% of health deals with what we have in the kitchen and the other 10% is physical activity. This is a true, but health and wellness are not as black and white as you think.

Other important factors of health that we need to pay attention too is our quality of sleep, stress levels, social support, behavior change, training modalities, and mental health. If we are lacking in any of these areas, there will be imbalances. You can eat to 90% accuracy and work out 5 days a week but having poor sleep and lack of behavior strategies can out weight the good that you are doing.

Every day we make automatic decision that do not require much thought, because they are already habits that were build over time. We all know that certain choices that we make every day will either impact our health or hinder our health. Late night drinking with friends, sneaking that extra bag of chips before hitting the sheets, or having an inconsistent sleep schedule that causes you to drag yourself from your bed every morning. Why do we make these decisions when we know they will have a negative effect on our health over time? The benefit of your overall goals are out weighted by the instant gratification by the subconscious brain.

The subconscious brain does all the work up to 95% of the choices we make for each day. This helps our brain to conserved most of our brain power to critical thinking and problem solving. The “fast brain” decides everything on the spot based on the habits you have created; a stressful day comes along then our brain impulsively redirects us to that drink or a pint of ice cream.

On the other half the “slow brain” is more logical and rational. This part of the brain weighs in all the outcomes to the decision you are making, long- term effects, consequences, and makes the connection with our long- term goals.

With the ability of neuroplasticity, SMART goals, and active behavior change we can adjust the “fast brain” to function more efficiently to make better decision like the “slow brain”. Let us touch on this further.

SMART Goals is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, & Time Bound. When developing your goals, we need to make sure they are specific to your main goal. Our imaginary friend Cathy wants to lose weight. How much weight does she want to lose? Why is losing this weight so important to her? Being specific with your goals will make real.

Now that Cathy knows her main goal with her specifications applied how are we going to measure this goal? Cathy can ask her trainer to take objective measurements based on her goals, body circumference measurement, skin caliper fold measurement, scale, a nutrition app like MyFitnessPal to keep her on track and make sure she is getting the right amount of nutrition she needs; she might do her own personal food journal based on emotional eating to do a check in each day for herself.

Cathy has her ways to measure her goals, but how is she going to attainable her goal to weight loss? Cathy can break this big goal of weight loss down into small goals to help herself out further with developing habits along the way. Cathy decides she will walk 1 hours a day 5 days a week with a buddy to keep her on track with her cardio and getting her steps in. She also uses the tools that her personal trainer recommended to her to keep her on the right path. She might not hit the mark every time, but she knows that she can achieve the small goals that leads up to her main goal 75 to 90%.

Cathy wants her goals to be realistic; her trainer told Cathy a healthy amount of weight can be lost every week based specific nutrition, fitness, and biopsychosocial variables based on her needs. Cathy thinks about the amount of work it will take her each week to meet her monthly goal. Once she can hit her week goal then she can try for her month goal . We all want an outcome but never think about all the work it will take and how we want to get there. That is why sitting down and make that scenario as realistic as it can get will help you develop and plan better.

Cathy finally has the confidence in her goals and now has a time frame in mind that she realistically can complete. Once you have an idea on how long you want to work towards the goal breaking the time down into small incremental and time bound! You can break these down from week to week then month to month. Have a base goal then developing and “stacking “to create smaller goals to lead to that bigger picture.

Neuroplasticity is the capacity of nerve cells to adapt to different circumstances. Nerve cells respond to stimulation by generating synapses and respond to deprivation and excess stress by weakening neuronal connections.

Let’s bring Cathy back into the mix; Cath is trying a new movement for the first time at the gym. The movement is difficult because the body needs to send action potential to the cerebellum down to the spinal cord to the muscle fibers to create a contraction. The first time doing this movement may lead to lack of coordination or instability because this neural path has not been created yet.

Cathy tries the movement again at her following training session and realizes it is a lot easier this time around. The repeated sending of the signals begins to create a path of desired movement. These same fundamentals are applied to creating habits that can be developed and applied. Let us review the Habit Loop Formula!

4 Steps of Habit Formation:

1. Cues

2. Cravings

3. Response

4. Reward

5. Repeat process!

Step #1: Cues

A cue brings cravings, this can happen any time of day, person, linked to a feeling, smell or even a specific event or environment. Example: Wake up, start kettle for coffee, wash face, brush your pearly whites, and so on.

Step #2: Craving

The “craving or motivation” behind a habit is what moves someone into action. For example, you are not necessarily motivated to brush our teeth, but you do it to have a clean mouth and healthy teeth. In general, cravings occur because we want to change our internal state.

Step #3: Response

The response is the actual habit being performed. When we get up in the morning you start right out with routine of habits you have already established. There can be 100 different responses to the same cues created over time based on the experience, preferences, and environment you are interacting in.

Step #4: Reward

In a nutshell the “reward” is wanting to change our internal state and we successfully achieve it. Pretty straight forward, if the reward benefits the outcome, we will most likely keep repeating this cycle over and over.

Creating habits can be hard but breaking them down into small goals and “stacking” them with habits that are already developed can go a long way.

Cathy is back and she wants to reduce the amount of caffeine she has before 4pm but does not want to completely cut out the coffee. She drinks her first cup of coffee in the morning, but instead of just coffee she drinks 8 0z of water as well that her trainer recommended.

Cathy keeps this habit up every time she drinks a cup of coffee. After the first two weeks, she notices she feels better, has a lot more energy and no mid- day crash. She also has consumed 1 to 2 cups less compared to what she was drinking. Cathy is so confident about her progress that the following week she completely cuts out 1 whole cup and replaces this cup with 16 oz of water instead.

Cathy had an established habit that she did daily but stacked a good habit on top of what she was already doing from the start. Overtime she slowly reduced the coffee consumption and slowly rolled into drinking more water because of habit stacking. She was able to still enjoy and cover her “craving” for the coffee and caffeine, but she did small adjustments to the’ cue & response” to that initial “craving”.

We cannot eliminate every habit that we have, but we can redirect and change the habit up by breaking the loop. Cathy tells her trainer that every time she comes home from work, she snacks more than she needs too, and this is an issue. Her trainer suggests that instead of coming in through the side door that is right next to the fridge, go through the front door and right to your bedroom to change out of her work cloths. This can help break the loop created for the urge to eat and create a new habit!

What do you do when the craving just keeps coming like a wave? The height of a craving might seem difficult; know this is temporary. The brain will try to increase the craving because you made it more aware and will increase the intensity for this craving. On average it takes 15 t o 20 minutes before a craving will go away. Depending on the habit the time will fluctuate but know it will go away.

The best way to combat a craving is called Urge Surfing. A few strategies for curving the urge is wait the 15 t o 20 minutes until the urge is gone. At first this will be very intense but hold out and find something that you enjoy that will curb the craving.

Urge Surfing :

  • 15 to 20 minutes of avoidance.

  • Substitute with a healthier alternative.

  • Eat a protein- this will keep you full and satisfy the ghrelin hormone.

  • Increase the distance from the snack like going for a walk or moving away from the pantry and kitchen.

  • Keep the snack completely out of the house.

  • You can find an accountability buddy to help you stay on track like a friend or a personal trainer/ nutritionist. Sharing your goals with others for support will make you want to stick with those goals more than wanting that craving!

Above we went over several techniques on how to develop goals, neuroplasticity, understanding and working with habit loops, stacking habits, and how to urge surf. Implementing new habits can be challenging, but all we must do is try. Keep trying repeatedly until you get it, that is all you can do. If you are putting and effort in, you will learn over time and develop better skills in your overall physical, mental, and emotional health.


Arnold. S. PES, CSCS, CSPS, CSC. (2021,May) “Neuroplasticity & Exercise: We are wired to fire.” NASM.

Mohr C. & Mohr K. PHD, RD. (2020,May) “ Nutrition & behavior change: Strategies for helping clients.” NASM.

Elsesser J. CES,PES, BCS. (2019, October) “ Habit Stacking- different approach to behavior coaching.” NASM.

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