Whether you’re cutting out food, television, or something else entirely, breaking old habits is easier than you might think.
Veganism always sounded too rigid for my tastes, so to speak, and not particularly fun. While I believe that eating is meant to sustain us, I also associate eating with great pleasure. Living by the ocean but not eating the local bounty every summer seemed like no summer at all; I love eating oysters on a deck, not to mention the conversation with friends that often accompanies. Meanwhile, some of my best meals have involved bacon.
But writing about health—and getting older—has made me think more carefully about what I put into my body. I’d already made adjustments in recent years: swapping out cow’s milk for almond, avoiding products with high-fructose corn syrup, eating more vegetables, and buying them fresh as much as possible. I’d read about the benefits of veganism and, more specifically, incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into my diet—which I’d done. But did that also mean I needed to give up salmon as well?
In his three-day program Kickstart Your Health: The Power of a Plant-Based Diet, Neal Barnard, MD, says, basically, yes. For nearly 30 years, he’s worked as a clinical researcher, author, and expert on health and wellness as it relates to a plant-based, animal-free diet. Vegans, he says, aren’t just slimmer, but live longer and better. They think more clearly. And aside from one or two essential vitamins that may need to be supplemented (B12 and D), we can get all the nutrients we need without eating animal products. Cheese, he tells us, is 70 percent fat. Most salmon, meanwhile, can be as much as 85 percent fat, with only 15 percent of that the “good fat” we often think of when we think of the fish.
Neal—who grew up in a family of cattle farmers in North Dakota but became a vegan in medical school—makes no compromises or exceptions, which could have something to do with the fact that he is first and foremost an animal rights advocate. He began his work studying the nutritional impact of a plant-based diet back in medical school, after taking on a lab rat as a pet. As such, his approach may be too rigid for many, who buy into the idea of eating more plants but perhaps aren’t quite ready to commit to cutting out all animal products. When a woman in her 70s asks what to serve someone who “absolutely won’t consider a meal without meat”—namely the husband she’s been cooking for these past 50 years—Neal says not to serve him at all.
At the same time, Neal understands that avoiding animal products can be difficult—they’re everywhere, after all. What makes the Kickstart program appealing is that it aims to make changing your eating habits fairly straightforward. The principles of Neal’s Kickstart program can apply to anyone making any sort of lifestyle change, from deciding to exercise every day to removing processed foods. Here, there are no baby steps involved—Neal doesn’t want you to taper off of meat but rather give it up right then and there—but in that way, there’s no confusion, and it’s harder to make excuses. Similarly, it’s never easy to give up smoking, but many who’ve done it successfully have done so not by weaning themselves off, with a cigarette less a day, but by making a decision that leaves no room for compromise.
A few days at Kripalu is generally itself a kick start to practicing better habits—like avoiding coffee and TV, eating more vegetables, practicing yoga regularly—and the Kickstart program followed suit. Back home, I found it took about two weeks of reinforcing my new habits to make them second nature. I cut out dairy, eggs, meat, and fish. That said, I make it work for me. When I’m a guest at someone’s house, I let my hosts know about my restrictions and offer to bring a dish, and I don’t stress. A piece of fish at a holiday dinner won’t kill me, or make me a failure. The way I see it, eating more vegetables, and fewer animals—or, for that matter, making any healthier change—isn’t about being rigid for the sake of being rigid, but about forming healthy new habits that I can stick with. And that’s far easier than you might think.
5 Ways To Break a Habit
Some experts say that it takes 21 days to break a habit and establish new patterns. The key is to stay focused—and remember why you’re aiming to break the habit in the first place. Here are some tips to get started.
List the benefits. Make a list of all the reasons you’ve decided to get rid of an old habit, and refer to it often.
Find a new habit. A good way to break an old habit is to find a new one. Pick up a new hobby, commitment, or favorite food—something you enjoy doing or eating, and which is good for you, too—to replace the thing you’re getting rid of.
Choose the right time. Keep in mind that it’s almost never convenient to make a lifestyle change—work’s too busy, the kids are demanding, it’s the holidays. That said, after you determine that you’re not just making excuses, do what you can to implement change during a relatively low stress time.
Track your progress. Keep a journal noting your thoughts and actions: When do you think about the old habit? Did you have a slip up—and why? Keeping tabs on yourself will keep you more accountable and help you recognize the triggers that may encourage falling back into old habits.
Ask for help. Letting friends, family, and coworkers know what you’re trying to do can serve as an important way to stay on track.
Are you in the process of developing healthy new habits? Have you found these tips beneficial?