Food and Money: How to Change Your Self-Defeating Habits

I received an email recently from someone who was really frustrated with her behaviours around food. “I constantly tell myself I’m going to eat less and make healthier choices,” she told me, “but a few days later there I am again right back at it – eating way too much, again! How can I stop?”

As the first part of my response I sent her some information about Overeater’s Anonymous, a 12-step program that can be very effective in helping people take back control of food. This post is going to be the second part of my answer, as I thought it might help you, too.

It’s also timely for me, as due to some major life changes in the last year or so, I’d fallen back into some unwelcome habits myself. When I’m under stress, especially in transition, I crave sweet, rich, starchy foods – think cupcakes, carrot cake, sigh. I also justify takeout meals, which even if “healthy” are still usually packed with calories, salt, additives and fat.

If I give in enough times, I’ve created a habit – my body screams for a cupcake if it hasn’t seen one in a couple of days, or begs me to stop by the adorable little bakery on the way home. My waist expands, clothes get uncomfortable. I’m not even supposed to eat wheat and dairy, and my skin shows the effects of inflammatory foods like sugar and white flour. Yech.

The last few years have also had some financial up and downs, and it’s time to get seriously back on track. My biggest obstacle? You guessed it: bad habits. The frequent takeout I mentioned above is one of them.

Can you relate?

In just a few weeks, I’ve made a HUGE amount of progress in both of these areas. What I’ve been doing has been working so well that I want to share these key habit-breaking tips with you:

1) Admit to yourself what you’re doing, and when you’re doing it

What habits around food and money do you have that are self-defeating? Bad habits in these two life areas often block us most powerfully from the life we’d like to enjoy.

Get your journal out, and on one page write your ideal food-related goals for the rest of the year(e.g. lose ten pounds, eat healthier, less sugar, etc.). On another page, write out your goals around money.

Now, list how you sabotage your goals in each area.

What do you eat? When and where? Why?

When and where do you impulse buy? When your money runs out but the month keeps going do you start charging everything?

How much money would you save in a year if you stopped buying that gourmet muffin and coffee every afternoon? (Here is where money and food meet – welcome to my world! And boy is it exciting when you start to leverage the breaking of BOTH habits!)

Warning: these lists can be LONG. Mine about bad money habits sure was! Start watching yourself, and you’ll learn surprising new things about your habits. You might be shocked about the ways you were self-sabotaging without even realizing, just because you’d gotten so used to the behaviour. The habit.

You’ll be amazed by how much easier it is to change a habit when you really let yourself see what you’ve been doing and acknowledge the effect on your life.

2) Change up your routine

Our less-than-ideal habits around spending and eating are usually tied to bigger patterns of habit that can be our secret weapons for change.

I decided I wanted to stop picking up sushi after finishing at the clinic. Nothing wrong with sushi normally, but at 10 pm all that white rice is a nightmare for a pre-bedtime body. As much of a treat as it was after a hard day, it really was a bad idea for my waistline, insulin levels, sleep quality and so on. AND at $12 a pop, if I could eliminate my usual two sushi nights a week I could save up to $624 in a year! Again: bad food and money habits, hand in hand.

That amount alone might not seem like a lot, but as I looked at more and more things I could painlessly trim from my life, the money started to add up fast.

Now for the routine aspect: I would drive by this sushi place on my usual route home from work. If I took a different route, I wouldn’t even have to debate with myself over whether I’d cave and get it or not. Works like a charm.

Do you have routines around food and money that you can switch up? If you stop watching TV at 10 pm rather than 10:30 every night, could you use the time to make yourself a fabulous lunch for work the next day, instead of grabbing fast food? Could you and your friends go out on Fridays to a different restaurant for a change, one that doesn’t feature ridiculously enticing martinis and the giant hot fudge cake you always share? Could you start eating in together instead of dining out?

Break the routine – and break the habit!

3) Make small key changes to chip away at the habit

Kindness to yourself is important, and there may be real comforts or benefits tied to your habits. Even though it’s ideal to find more adaptive ways of comforting or treating yourself, you don’t need to deny yourself all the time or go cold turkey.

In every choice you make, think of ways you can minimize the damage.

Now when I go out with a friend for dinner, I’ll often skip both my glass of wine and dessert. I save almost $20 with tax and tip, and avoid the extra calories and the day-after bloating and fatigue. If I save $20 a week, that’s $1040 in my pocket – how crazy is that? And I still have a great time, so I’m way ahead! 

4) Take it a day (or moment) at a time

When you’re staring down a potentially self-sabotaging decision – like whether to have that bag of chips while watching TV, or whether to buy that gorgeous dress in the window even though you promised yourself you’d put $200 in your emergency fund this month – ask yourself if, just for today, you can resist. Just this moment, this afternoon, this evening, whatever. Just for today.

Can you do it? Could you get through it without giving in to the old habit? Just for right now? I’d bet you can!

The best part is, when you start having these small triumphs and watch them build into bigger and bigger results, it gets easier and easier to keep winning the habit battle. Before you know it, your habits have become good ones!

(P.S. I also always pray for help with changes I’d like to see happen in myself and my life. That’s probably another key ingredient of my success…asking for help from a “higher power” is at the heart of 12 Step Programs like OA and AA that help people keep lifelong addictions for good)

What’s a self-sabotaging habit you’d like to kick? What’s hardest about it for you? Let me know by posting a comment about it and I’ll see if I can help you out…

Thanks so much for stopping by, and I hope I’ve helped you move closer to living a life you truly love!


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  1. Jenny Blake says:

    Love this post, Susan! I just yesterday started a 21-day cleanse with my friend because I realized I had become completely dependent on sugar, coffee, and bad foods to get me through the energy swings that those very foods were creating! It really can be a vicious cycle, and the worst part is that bad foods are so addicting!

    I’m on Day 2 of the cleanse and my cravings are definitely strong – but it’s showing me just how much I had been relying on food to get me through the day – emotions, boredom, etc.

    Thanks for a great set of tips in this post!

  2. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    Hi Jenny!
    Thank you so much for discovering this already and for commenting – I posted it last night and it will officially be coming out in my newsletter tomorrow. I fly out today so had to get it in place early…

    I relate so much to what you’ve written, too – given the scale of the leaps of faith you and I are both currently taking (or working up to), it’s no small wonder our bodies want to curl up in fetal position around a 6-pack of day-old cupcakes (note: I DON’T recommend buying those, I did so a couple times because they were a “deal” – yikes! Not a truly adaptive way to be “saving money”) .

    Our true selves are gathering speed, aiming to launch up into the stratosphere, perfectly on track – but the primitive part of us that gets scared wants to slow us down or even immobilize us. “Are you sure you want to develop that new e-book? Wouldn’t you rather just have a cookie and watch Netflix? So much more relaxing…”

    Imagine what will happen once we conquer this stuff?

    So thrilled as always to have you alongside for the journey JB, you are one of my favorite people on this planet!

  3. Oksana Pankova says:

    Thank you for the post, Susan – it is so timely and inspiring, especially these tough days.
    It gives me additional “push” to review my harmful behaviour patterns and set up healthy goals. It is also important to see that I am not alone in “struggling with my dragons”. :sigh

  4. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    Hello Oksana! Oh I’m so glad you found this helpful. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been having some tough times lately too. Stress makes us more likely to eat what we shouldn’t and spend what we don’t have (or could be saving) …and then we feel even worse. You are so not alone in struggling with your dragons…I have so many I could fit them all in “Jurassic Park”! 😉

  5. Emilie Sobb says:

    Hi Susan,
    Thank you for such an excellent post once again. I too continue to find it a challenge to build positive eating habits on a consistent basis – although my challenge is more often to do with time management and being organised with my meals so that nourishing food is there when I need it – so I’m not reaching for the quickest but often less wise option. I have found that my cravings for sugar, dairy and starchy carbs is greatly minimized when my meals contain a decent amount of protein (of course balanced with plenty of fruit/vegetables). I am a huge fan of the work of Dr James Chestnut (I think he’s from your part of the world actually) and have found my learnings in his “Innate Lifestyle Program; Eat Well, Move Well, Think Well” to be wonderful in helping me to build more positive habits. Thanks again for your interesting and useful post.

  6. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    Thanks so much for posting and for your enthusiastic feedback, I always love hearing from you. Interesting to hear your experience with protein decreasing cravings. It certainly balances any carbs in your meal and therefore stabilizes insulin (protecting you from blood sugar swings) and also increases satiety, making you feel full longer. So it makes perfect sense that it would decrease cravings, too.

    I love hearing about other experts that have impacted you, I made a note about Dr. Chestnut in my little notebook and will have to go check his work out!
    Thanks again, Emilie,

  7. Jacq says:

    I’mma give that a try. Thought most of mine were stress-related, but now I’m thinking the eating associated with the lack of time and surplus of stress might come into the mix.

    New motivation for little changes.

    /sigh, life seems like such hard work sometimes!

  8. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    Hi Jacq and thanks for your comment, stress absolutely affects your skin but food has a huge impact as well. I wrote about this in one of the chapters in my book, white flour and sugar are well-known now as pro-inflammatory foods, the results of this show up in our skin through acne, inflammation, faster aging etc. Yuck! I used to have major problems with acne and it would predictably get really bad after, say, a low-strss trip to Italy! (white flour pasta, baskets of white bread, pastries, gelato etc.).

  9. Elen Ghulam says:

    Glad that I am not the only one that is struggling with bad habits. My list is loooooong. Lets see if I can knock off a few off the list in the two weeks.

  10. Dr. Susan Biali says:

    Hi Elen!
    I think it’s just so freeing to admit to each other how looooooooong our lists are, I know you and I aren’t alone in this!

    Once you get started knocking things off the list, the small successes start to feel really good and the momentum makes it easier to knock more stuff off the list…of course there are also times when we fall back into the habit we thought we’d successfully kicked and then it’s a matter of picking ourselves up and re-committing to the change again (without beating ourselves up, it’s so normal to take steps backward when we’re trying to implement positive change). Every small triumph is worth celebrating! (preferably not with cupcakes, though!) 🙂

  11. Andrew says:

    I am working on trying to eat healthier by making smarter choices and planning. If you don’t plan then you have the fast food rest. knocking on your door. I also plan on preparing and eating fresh foods and stay away from the processed foods as much as possible. My son who watched Food Inc. even suggests we try and purchase our fruits and veggies from the farmer’s market and not the grocery store. I am also trying to incorporate working out at least 5 times a week. Whether it is bootcamp, running, biking or even walking the dog. If you throw exercise into your daily schedule, I think it helps you clear your mind and helps you eat healthier and feel better about yourself overall. You always feels better after a good work out and good healthy food. (I believe it gives you more energy). One last thing I am going to incorporate into my daily life is a positive and healthy mind set of the way I think.

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