This Research Study Found A Way To Easily Change Bad Eating Habits. Here’s How You Can Use It


Most of us know we should eat more leafy greens, make time for our friends and family, and get off our laptops.

And most of us will even plan to do it.

But sometimes, even our best-laid plans go awry.

Somehow, when it comes down to it, we either forget (because we don’t use a cue to remind us), or we make excuses.

This is one reason why we fail to break bad habits.

But we don’t have to rely on motivation and willpower to achieve our goals; it can be a lot simpler that that.

Before we learn why, we need to learn what triggers our behaviours in the first place.

Eat Five-A-Day

In 2008, Gráinne Fitzsimons and Berger conducted a study on how to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. [1]

Students were paid twenty dollars to report what they ate every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner at their nearby dining hall.

After one week, the students were asked to participate in what seemed like an unrelated experiment from a different researcher.

They were told that the National Board for Better Heath wanted feedback on a public-health slogan, targeting college students.

Approximately half the students saw the slogan, “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day”. The other half saw, “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day”. This was relevant because students lived on campus, and many of them ate in dining halls that used trays.

Just to be sure, they were shown it more than twenty times, printed in different colours and fonts.

Both slogans encouraged people to eat fruits and vegetables, but the “tray” slogan did so using a trigger.

Could Fitzsimons and Berger trigger healthy eating by using the dining room tray to remind the students of the slogan?

Turns out they could.

Students who had seen the more generic, “live healthy” slogan didn’t change their eating habits. But students who had seen the “tray” slogan and used trays in their cafeterias, changed their behaviour.

The trays reminded them of the slogan and as a result, they ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables.

The trigger worked.

Top of Mind Awareness

At any given moment, some behaviours are more front of mind, or accessible, than others.

In marketing, top of mind awareness (TOMA) is extremely useful; a brand or specific product that has top of mind awareness will come front of mind when you think of a particular industry.

The same applies to habits.

Some behaviours are habitually accessible; if you’re an athlete, you’re constantly thinking about your next game. Similarly, if you’re a creative or an entrepreneur, you’re next project or business deal are always top of mind.

But stimuli in our surrounding environment can also determine which behaviours are top of mind.

Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related behaviours – like bad eating habits – and make them more top of mind.

In his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger writes:

Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas. [2]

Berger is right. And as we learned in my Choice Architecture article, decision makers do not make choices in a vacuum.

In order to break bad habits and form good ones that actually stick we need to make bad habits inaccessible and good habits accessible.

The lesson here, as evident from Fitzsimons and Berger’s study, is accessible behaviours lead to action, but they need instructions.

Give Yourself Instructions

Unlike a new kitchen appliance, we don’t come with instructions; we learn to self-direct our behaviours by trial and error, not from abstract information.

Ultimately, we don’t need generic advice; we need a call to action.

If we are to commit to good habits and give them top of mind awareness, not only do we need to make them accessible – like leaving dental floss in plain sight – but we need to instruct ourselves how to do them as well.

This is done using environmental cues.

For example:

  • Dieting: “Every weekday morning, for breakfast [CUE], I must eat either scrambled eggs or walnut-yogurt parfait (except for Saturday, that’s my Cheat Day).
  • Exercise: “Every Tuesday and Wednesday, when I arrive home from work [CUE], I must pick up my gym bag and go to the gym for 30 minutes”.
  • Productivity: “Every evening, at 21:00, when my alarm clock reminds me [CUE], I must de-clutter my inbox. This includes replying to emails and unsubscribing from spam”.
  • Self-Improvement: “Every day, when I commute to and from work [CUE], I must read 10% of a non-fiction Kindle book and highlight what I think is useful”.

Similar to using a Commander’s Intent or an implementation intention, you’re self-directing your behaviour. You’re defining your intent (“I must”) and triggering it using an environmental cue.

You know what you want. You know what needs to be done. Give yourself a call to action and give your good habits top of mind awareness.