How to stick to a diet according to Science

Mar 14, 2019

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When beginning a new diet, what you are essentially dealing with is a change in habit. And as the 19th century, Scottish writer Samuel Smiles mentions. “ To uproot an old habit is sometimes a more painful thing and vastly more difficult than to wrench out a tooth.”

Behavioral scientists Bas Verplanken and Henrik Aarts have a definition for habits. It is a learned sequence of acts that have become automatic, unconscious responses to specific cues or triggers around us'. (1) So while taking on a new diet, we are looking to break an old habit and build a new one.

Our habits make up a large chunk of our daily lives. One study focused on examining the diaries of students and community members. They concluded that up to 45% of the activities and tasks we undertake in our day are habitual. (2)

Before you start any diet, make sure you have figured out your cues. And this is much easier said than done. Samuel Johnson says, ‘ The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”. Prepare yourself to become uncomfortable. Identify all the little cues that quietly trigger your present diet. Identifying and acknowledging their presence is the first step towards changing any habit you are looking to change. Take the example of making coffee.

We have come to associate a “good” morning with a hot mug of coffee. The cue here might be the morning light or the alarm going off or a cafe' that we pass by on the way to work. These triggers are harmless by themselves but lead to us being reminded of the aroma of coffee and that begins the cycle. And these are associations we have built over a long period of time. A study was conducted by Phillippa Lally and colleagues at the Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL in 2009. The primary aim of this study was to determine the time it takes to form a habit. It takes anywhere between 18 days and 254 days to build a new habit. The average time was 66 days. (3)

Notice that every habit is also associated with some sort of reward. It is this reward that motivates one to keep repeating the activity and building the habit. The reward is what fixes behaviour in place and makes it a habit. (4) The link is so strong that after a while, we don’t even need the reward. Just the memory of the reward is enough to make this behaviour automatic.

Here are a few other things that would help you on your way to sticking to your diet.

1. Define your Destination:

If you really want to stick to a diet, the absolute first thing is to define exactly what diet is right for you. We tend to follow these fad diets that may work for a little while, but most of the time, end up letting us down. There is no universal healthy diet. Figure out what your body needs and what's going on inside your gut with Viome's Gut Intelligence Test. Knowing where you're heading makes the journey much more enjoyable.

2. Find a Role Model:

While the diet-chart might look pretty fancy on paper, you need a real-life role model to feel the difference this diet could make to your life. It could be as simple as a friend who sticks to his/her diet to the hilt day in and day out.

3. Keep it Simple:

One mistake that most people make with new diets is to switch too fast too soon. One has to keep in mind, that the body too will take time to adjust to this new diet. So once you have your chart ready, break it down.

Remember that every massive feat starts with one small baby step. Taking things slow ensures that you can actually stick to it without driving yourself nuts and that you accustom your body to this new shift.

Start with the diet rules for just a single meal of the day: Breakfasts are great for this! The added advantage is that since it is the first meal of the day, and at that time you are quite hungry. At this stage, it is quite easy to get yourself oriented to eating just about anything under the sun.

4. The Time Game: Try the diet for a day and then revert back to your usual routine. Try again after 3 days and try it for 2 days. And then for three days. Warm up your body-mind to accept this new diet and become at ease with it.

5. Make it Easy to Follow: Ensure that you have stocked your home with everything that you would like to be eating when you are on this diet. More importantly, make sure to get rid of anything that you don't want to be eating during these times. If you don’t want to discard, the least you could do is put it in a place where you don’t see it in front of you. (7,8)

6. Mindful Eating:

Take time out for each of your meals. Ensure that you are in a calm environment with no distractions. Focus all your energy on just nourishing yourself, and nothing else. Pay attention to every little morsel of food and savour it.

There was a study conducted obese women who practiced mindful eating. They had significant improvements in their relationship with food over the course of 4 months. (5) Another study on mindful eating showed that binge eating episodes decreased from 4 to 1.5 per week. And this happened in just 6 weeks. (6)

7. Keep Track:

Before you begin your experiments with the diet, start putting entries into a journal or a calendar. It helps to have a visual representation of your new habit. Just watching it would motivate you to go on. And at times this would act as a reward too! Just knowing that you can stick to your new diet for 5 days straight would now give you the confidence to stick to it for a longer period.

8. The Contingency Plan:

Be ready with Plan B and C for when the cravings kick in. Make sure you have back up recipes, ingredients and snacks at hand. This is just so that if you aren’t able to manage your cravings at the last minute, you don't go completely overboard but just take a mild detour.

And if you ever end up jumping to Plan B, remember to jump right back to Plan A the next day. Don’t be too hard on yourself or give up the whole diet just because one meal went out of hand. You can always spring right back up and steer back on to your planned schedule.  

9. Rewards:

Ensure that you are well rewarded for sticking to the plan. The reward could be as simple as checking your weight and being satisfied with having lost some. Or it could be a treat at your favourite restaurant! It is important to acknowledge the grit and determination with which you have stuck on to the diet. Acknowledging this at this stage will help you be more confident of your own will power the next time on.

10. Take Support:

While it might seem insignificant while starting off, this is one move that will help you in the long run. If that feels like too much pair up with a friend and do it together. Being accountable to one another makes it so much easier for one to be true to oneself and the practice.

Besides, it is best to be guided by those who have been through this before. 


  1. Quinn, J.M., & Wood, W. (2005).Habits across the lifespan. Unpublished manuscript, Duke University; Wood, W., Quinn, J.M., & Kashy, D. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1281–1297. 

  2. Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world. Euro J Soc Psychol. 2010;40:998–1009

    Mindfulness Intervention for Stress Eating to Reduce Cortisol and Abdominal Fat among Overweight and Obese Women: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Study.

    An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder.

    The office candy dish: proximity's influence on estimated and actual consumption.

    Home environment and psychosocial predictors of obesity status among community-residing men and women.



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