How one small change can break bad food habits of a lifetime

Date

Lindy Alexander

Want to break those bad food habits of a lifetime? Starting with small steps is the key to success.

Your health: improve your diet one day, and one thing, at a time.

Your health: improve your diet one day, and one thing, at a time. Photo: Stocksy

Growing up in North America, food blogger Sarah Britton was raised on hot dogs, boxed cereal and doughnuts. Britton described herself as "overfed and undernourished". But a year spent working on an organic farm eight years ago changed everything. 

"I thought chickpeas came from cans, but when I tasted a cooked chickpea that we had grown, soaked and boiled, it was a different food," she says. "We were picking tomatoes warm from the sun, making bread and pizza dough."

Each day brought new experiences. "I had been disconnected from nature and not interested in food at all, then suddenly I was eating only what we grew," she says. 

For Copenhagen-based Britton, who is now vegetarian and a holistic nutritionist, small daily changes add up to big shifts. It's all about "baby steps", she tells me. "If you can do little things, like soaking and boiling legumes or using fresh herbs, your life is effectively changed."

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Britton shared her "one change" philosophy during a TEDx talk in Amsterdam in 2012. It is remarkably simple and involves making a single "healthier" choice every day. 

Melbourne psychologist Sabina Read says making small changes is empowering because with just a little effort we can make a difference to the way we live. "The key to long-lasting change is to adopt a modification or substitution approach, rather than depriving ourselves," she says. "Thinking about what you will gain with each change, instead of what you will lose, is an important shift." 

To see whether the decisions I make in the kitchen can really change my life, I listened to Britton and made a better choice every day for a week.

Day 1  Not wanting to peak too early, I start small. I add fresh herbs to my lunchtime omelette. The result is fresh and flavourful. I wonder why I haven't done it earlier. 

Day 2  I bake hot cross buns. Britton advocates moving away from refined grains, so I swap white flour for wholemeal spelt. The result is chewy and delicious, with a sweet, nutty flavour. Most of the fruit-studded buns disappear while still warm. 

Day 3  Friends have embraced the green smoothie trend, but I have been unable to muster enthusiasm for cold, liquefied vegetables. I tell Britton this and she says, "Go gently. Add a few spinach leaves to your next smoothie." So I do. The result? Apart from the green flecks, the spinach is inconspicuous. I could do this more often. 

Day 4  I make Sarah's "seriously super cereal" with buckwheat, millet, amaranth, quinoa, sunflower and chia seeds. It's soaked overnight in water with a splash of apple cider vinegar. "Smells like salad dressing," my partner says. In the morning, while he tucks into his store-bought muesli, I simmer my super cereal and feel virtuous. But despite the addition of spices, sliced apple and maple syrup, it is not something I want to wake up to every morning.

Day 5  I make a raw chocolate brownie and take it into the office. A mix of medjool dates, nuts and raw cacao are blitzed together to make a dense, earthy slice. The response of my colleagues is initially underwhelming. "Well, it's not revolting," says one. By the end of the day, however, the plate is empty. 

Day 6  A picnic invitation inspires me to make Britton's "life-changing bread" – a vegan, gluten-free loaf packed with nuts, oats, seeds and spices. It looks like a thick wedge of bird food, but three of my friends want the recipe.

Day 7  I wake up thinking about Sarah's bread. I make it again a few days later. Maybe life-changing isn't an overstatement, after all. 

TRY THIS TOMORROW

Switch to whole grains.

Use fresh herbs. 

Drink warm water with lemon juice first thing in the morning.

Make your own nut milk.

Chew your food thoroughly. 

Go vegetarian for meat-free Mondays.

Make your own nut butter.

Avoid white sugar and use coconut sugar, stevia or rice bran syrup instead.

Soak and cook your own legumes.

Try some spinach leaves in your next smoothie.

Sarah Britton's book My New Roots (Macmillan), based on her food blog, is out next week.