There’s a pint of Talenti Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip gelato in my freezer that is calling to me. If you’ve never had it, it’s one of those decadent treats that is so worth it. Rich creamy, intense fruit flavor with just the right amount of thin chocolate chips scattered throughout for a perfect blend of smooth and crunchy. Yum! I bought it yesterday to serve to friends who were coming over for dinner, but instead we all chose a healthier option of fresh raspberries and the dairy-free, gluten-free raspberry-lemon “cheesecake” I made featuring cashews, pecans and dates in addition to the fruit. It was interesting, but not cheesecake.

So…the ice cream sits in the freezer calling to me as my mouth salivates just thinking about it. But there won’t be any ice cream tonight—not since my eyes have been getting red and itchy and my sinuses congested. I must go back on my healthy-eating wagon.

Twenty years ago, I stopped eating wheat, sugar and dairy for health reasons. Changing my diet significantly improved my health. Since I was not suffering from anaphylactic allergies, I have definitely cheated on my diet over the years since, let’s face it, sometimes you want a treat.

Bad habits aren’t necessarily bad once…or twice. It’s when they become habitual that it becomes a problem. And after my recent vacation in the land of cheese and pastries, my once-in-a-while bites of this and that are becoming habitual again. Time to recommit.

People have asked me through the years how I managed to make such significant lifestyle changes especially since my sweet tooth was more than a really bad habit—it was my way of life.

It actually took me only two steps after being told to change my ways.

  1. See/Feel the Self-Destructive Nature of It. If it’s a bad habit, it’s self-destructive. The problem is that it also is your normal, so it’s difficult to see what it’s doing to you. With my sweet tooth…sure I was always congested, but hey, whatever. But once I stopped eating sugar, I suddenly realized that sugar also caused my headaches and made my head spin. I was so used to the agitation that I didn’t notice it until it was gone and then returned only when I ate sugar. What is drinking or smoking doing to you? How about your habit of procrastination? Or running five minutes late? Or interrupting people when they speak? What impact is that having on your relationships with others?
  1. Imagine You Did It. That bite of ice cream always feels great going down…so does the first glass of wine. Or the 30 more minutes of sleep in the morning that either makes you late or prevents you from exercising. My favorite way to eat a cake is actually with a knife and a sliver at a time because it always feels and tastes like that first bite. But here’s the thing—I also know that afterward it doesn’t feel so good. In fact, it feels really bad. So while I am thinking about how good that black raspberry gelato may taste going down, I also think about how bad it makes me feel. Over time, I have paired the food with the bad feeling. No longer does ice cream simply remind me of good. After repeated experiences of feeling bad, I now mentally pair it with the bad feelings that go along with it. Why would I want to do something when it gives me some form of pain?

This pairing actually is something I learned about when studying psychology in college—a concept called taste-aversion learning. This is when animals protect themselves from poisoning by avoiding foods that they associate with having made them sick. While I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, my pairing of bad feelings with assorted foods is a manifestation of this concept.

I had lunch last week with a friend who has become vegan in the past year. That is really extreme in my book. But her answer was exactly the same as mine when I asked her how she could do it. She feels so much better when eating a plant-based diet, and the physical symptoms that had been bothering her have gone away. Eat bad, feel bad. Eat good, feel good.

Powerful motivator, right?

This works with other behaviors as well—it’s the pairing of the behavior and the pain that is so powerful.

Of course, some habits may take a while to see the bad feelings/outcomes. And once you see them, it may take some practice to create the mental pairing between the urge of desire and the after-the-fact bad feeling. If it’s overeating, think of those pants pulling at your waist. If it’s drinking too much, think of the hangover and the blurry brain. If it’s procrastinating, think of the embarrassment of incompletion or the argument with the people you have let down.

As you sit down to your deliciously decadent Thanksgiving feast today, enjoy every bite. Today is not the day to change your habits. It is the day to be grateful for all of your options and to be aware of how many you have. Then bookmark this page. Once the holidays are over and you are ready for those New Year’s resolutions, these two steps will be your easiest way to a great new year.