How To Break a Learned Behavior

by karen on October 3, 2019

As a registered dietitian and health coach, a lot of the work I do with my clients addresses eating behavior. And as a human being living and breathing each day, I have my own eating behavior issues that I work to manage and/or improve upon. For the sake of helping both myself and my readers, I’d like to share my personal eating behavior issues; I’ve begun overeating at night, and that routine has netted me a 10 pound weight gain in the past 6 months. This gain has made many items in my closet uncomfortable, and the behavior behind the gain is not healthy—mentally or physically—if left unchecked.

Our healthy eating behaviors, or habits, serve us very well. They are the food routines we repeat on a daily basis that fuel us through our day without having to spend a lot of time or effort doing them. Habits that are healthy shouldn’t go anywhere, but when they’re not healthy, we don’t have to stay stuck in our muck.

Oftentimes, poor eating behaviors have an emotional basis that leads to eating when we’re not hungry. Emotional eating is frequently triggered by stress, fatigue, sadness, loneliness and—all too often—boredom. The logical part of our brain may realize we’re eating when we’re not hungry, but our emotional brain takes over. When emotions enter the picture, reason goes out the window, and our healthy eating choices along with it.

Taking Control

But have no fear, we can all get a grip on those emotional eating behaviors we need to ditch. Emotional eating follows a consistent pattern, whereby we can intervene at any point along that behavior chain and avoid eating. The earlier in the process we can make a change, the more likely we are to succeed. Click here for a copy of the Emotional Eating worksheet; the items in bold are the steps that occur with emotional eating, and below each, ideas for breaking the behavior chain and reducing the occurrences of emotional eating.

Something Happens

Prevent the trigger from happening.

  • Avoid the situation
  • Change the situation
  • Identify the person or event that’s causing the trigger and create a change

You Think About It

Keep your thinking positive and action-oriented.

  • Focus on the solution, not the problem
  • Listen to what you’re telling yourself about the situation
  • Change the conversation in your head
  • Replace negative self-talk with positive each time you go there


You Get Emotional

Weaken the emotion. Don’t let the emotion be in control.

  • Do a relaxation exercise
  • Remind yourself of your health motivators
  • Recite all of the positive choices you’ve made throughout the day
  • Look at a funny YouTube video that makes you laugh

You Respond By Eating

Do something other than eat.

  • Read
  • Listen to music
  • Go to a movie
  • Call a friend

Print out the worksheet (linked above) and make some time to identify triggers of your emotional eating, then see how you might break those behavior chains to minimize eating outside of your health plan. It can be very liberating to have power over food choices in challenging situations, and know that I’ll be right there with you!


Karen Fisher, MS, RD, LDN, CDE is a dietitian in Reno, Nevada, happily promoting the benefits of healthy foods at her nutrition consulting firm, Nutrition Connection. Find her website

 To find a nutrition expert in your area, go to the academy website – Find an Expert

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