How to break your bad eating habits

The science behind making and breaking habits
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Story highlights

  • Ingrained habits like mindless snacking can become second nature
  • Instead of dieting, simply changing your environment could influence about 70% of what you eat
  • Create good habits by keeping a bowl of fruit nearby and having a tidy kitchen

Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.

(CNN)Forget diets: the secret to healthy eating may be easier than you think.

Instead of reading labels and counting calories, you might just want to try focusing on your habits.
    Research shows habits can become so ingrained that we often don't realize we're doing them -- and this can be a big problem when it comes to mindless snacking.
    In fact, once a task becomes second nature, your brain essentially shuts down, according to Brian Wansink, author of 'Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.'
    "Habits become so automatic ... our environment ends up facilitating a good habit, but it also ends up facilitating a bad habit."
    The key then is to create good food habits and stick to them. But this doesn't mean relying on willpower alone -- all you need to do is change your environment.
    "Simply having a fruit bowl sitting out on your counter within three feet of where you typically walk, will lead you to eat a whole lot more fruit, actually about 70% more fruit, than you otherwise would," says Wansink.

    Smarten up your kitchen

    A similar approach, the smarter lunchroom movement, was rolled out in over 29,000 schools in the United States.
    By changing the way food was presented, students were a lot keener on eating their five-a-day.
    How do you turn a new routine into second nature?
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    How do you turn a new routine into second nature? 08:07
    "Having the bowl of fruit next to the cash register causes 104% more fruit to be taken [and] we find that simply putting a label or name on vegetables -- calling it crunchy carrots instead of carrots -- causes about 30% more kids to take the carrots," says Wansink.
    You can also make a big difference in your own kitchen. Findings show that messy kitchens can lead to people eating about 40% more snack food than when they're in a clean kitchen.
    The same principle may work for portion sizes, with Wansink's research showing that simply using a smaller plate could cut down on food served by 22%.

    It's not about willpower

    Breaking bad habits is all about changing your environment, not by using sheer willpower.
    "Willpower does not work. That's why diets don't work. They work for a certain amount of time, and then you fall back into your old habits. So what we advocate is changing your behavior, changing your lifestyle, changing your environment," says John Brand, a researcher at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab.
    Whether you keep a tidy kitchen or always have fruit an arm's length away, the key is to set up your environment so that you can mindlessly eat in a healthy way.
    "Changing your habits is very difficult. Changing your environment is very simple," says Brand.
    Watch the video at the top of the page to find out more