Nutrition

5 Dietitian-Recommended Ways to Help Make Healthy Eating a Habit

5 min read

According to a dietitian, these are the healthy eating habits worth adopting.
According to a dietitian, these are the healthy eating habits worth adopting.

Essential Takeaways

  • Learning about nutrition is really just the first step—it’s all about turning that knowledge into habits.
  • We turned to dietitian and Ritual Scientific Advisory Board member Dr. Michelle Davenport for her pointers on the nutrition habits to embrace—and the pitfalls to watch out for.

Healthy eating is great in theory, obviously—many of us probably have a good idea of the basics, like limiting processed foods and filling our plates with nutrient-rich foods whenever possible. But when it comes down to it, how do we transform those ideas into lasting habit?

For professionals like Dr. Michelle Davenport, PhD, RD, this is the eternal question: As a dietitian, food tech expert, and member of Ritual’s Scientific Advisory Board, she knows that educating on the science of healthy eating is just half the battle—the truly crucial part is understanding what that knowledge looks like within the context of everyday life. A lot of that is understanding how habit formation actually works in the brain, along with some pitfalls that can stand in our way.

Below, she shares some of the key nutrition pointers that many of us might be overlooking—all in the name of building lasting healthy eating habits, once and for all.

Ever heard of the Habit Loop?

The process of habit formation in the brain can be boiled down to three parts: cue, routine, reward. A habit is formed when you cycle through the Loop enough times for the behavior to go on autopilot.
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1. Make it easy to go on autopilot.

Behaviors become habits when we no longer have to think about doing them—but sometimes the notion of “fake it until you make it” applies when we’re first getting into that routine. In other words, if there are certain things you can do to make healthy eating that much easier, then by all means—go for it. Maybe that means clearing your cabinets of processed foods (out of sight, out of mind). Or it could be spending a couple hours on Sunday chopping and prepping ingredients for the week ahead, so that healthy lunches and dinners are a breeze even when you’re busy with work.

Or you might borrow Davenport’s pro tip: Subscribe to a weekly produce box from a local farm or restaurant. “If you’re lucky enough to have a CSA box near you, I can’t speak enough about what an amazing gift it is to get a box of fresh fruits and vegetables every week,” she says. “It forces you to eat fresh produce and to do it regularly, before the next box comes!”

2. When you find something that works for you, lean all the way in.

Loving your weekly trips to the farmer’s market with your fam? Is there a healthy snack you look forward to enjoying every afternoon? Research shows that positive emotions are the best way to reinforce habits—so those are sticking points worth building routines around. (1)

“Creating processes is key,” says Davenport. “Find a system that works for you and stick to it. The magic happens once you’re able to identify the cue that makes your habit work. For example, it may be anticipating the day your CSA box or your Ritual multivitamins arrive. And if you’re struggling to create a habit, think of a new cue that will make you excited to adopt it.”

3. Scale back on packaged foods—even the “healthy” stuff.

Of course, some packaged foods are better for you than others. But it’s still a good rule of thumb to limit them altogether, since these are the items that tend to be processed. To get really specific, researchers categorize 71% of all packaged food goods in the US as “ultra-processed” as of 2009. Plus, all that packaging isn’t ideal for the environment. (2)

Whether it’s via the farmer’s market or smarter choices at the grocery store, “literally think outside the box and replace anything that you can with a fresh item,” says Davenport. That also means gearing up with reusable grocery and produce bags.

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4. Remember to take stock of what’s missing from your plate.

Let’s say you already fancy yourself pretty healthy—you enjoy a lot of fruits and veggies, you steer clear of processed foods. That’s an amazing start—but there might be other elements to consider. “It’s not just about what you’re eating, but what you’re not eating,” says Davenport. “Did you miss out on any key nutrients?”

The truth is that while your diet should (obviously) be your #1 priority when it comes to building better nutrition habits, it’s also really tricky to eat “perfectly” 100% of the time, especially when it comes to nutrient intake. While filling your plate with a rainbow of nutrient-rich foods is an ideal strategy, there are certain nutrients that are tougher to get from food than others, due to factors ranging from genetic variations to dietary restrictions.

Take omega-3 DHA, for example. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in several functions in the body, like supporting brain health, heart health, and eye health. But while omega-3 fatty acids are found in a wide range of foods, the two types that we need most—DHA and EPA—are found largely in animal products like fish. That can be really tricky for vegetarians, but it’s also where a quality multivitamin can help out.*

5. Above all else, be kind to yourself.

Hey—you’re human. “Health and eating habits don’t live in a vacuum, so forgive yourself if it’s not working out initially,” says Davenport. “Don’t forget about everything else that’s happening in your life.” In other words, one of the best ways to manage a healthy diet is taking care of yourself in other ways outside of food—to view your diet as one important cog in a routine that serves your overall well-being.

Tying new healthy eating habits to existing positive habits is a great way to approach this mindset. This is called “habit-stacking,” and research suggests that it’s actually easier to kick off new habits this way. If you relish the ritual of making your morning coffee, for example, try also using that time to also prepare a nutritious breakfast. Or if you’re having trouble staying hydrated, steal this hack from Davenport: “Every morning, you can make a beautiful jug of fruit-infused water and leave it next to the refrigerator with an empty glass,” she says. “I have a tiny vase of colorful flowers next to mine.” Voila—every time you venture over to the kitchen for a snack, that water looks all too inviting. (3)

The bottom line

Healthy eating really doesn’t have to be complicated—while understanding the science of nutrition is great, the real trick is applying that knowledge to your daily routine.*

References:

  1. Dougherty, E. Wired for Habit. (2015). Retrieved from MIT News
  2. Baldridge, Abigail S., et al. “The Healthfulness of the US Packaged Food and Beverage Supply: A Cross-Sectional Study.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 8, 2019, p. 1704., doi:10.3390/nu11081704.
  3. Lally, Phillippa, et al. “Experiences of Habit Formation: A Qualitative Study.” Psychology, Health & Medicine, vol. 16, no. 4, 2011, pp. 484–489., doi:10.1080/13548506.2011.555774.

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Meet our expert

This article features advice from our Scientific Advisory Board.

Dr. Michelle Davenport

Dr. Michelle Davenport, PhD, RD

Dr. Michelle Davenport, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian and the founder of Quantitative Nutrition, a company that provides consultations on data science in nutrition and precision-based methods for food and health product research and development. A veteran of the food tech industry, she has been profiled in Forbes, Fast Company, and the Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Michelle Davenport

Dr. Michelle Davenport, PhD, RD

Dr. Michelle Davenport, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian and the founder of Quantitative Nutrition, a company that provides consultations on data science in nutrition and precision-based methods for food and health product research and development. A veteran of the food tech industry, she has been profiled in Forbes, Fast Company, and the Wall Street Journal.