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Habits: Putting Your Weight Loss on Auto-Pilot

Hi there!

In this episode we discuss what the "basal ganglia" is in our brain, how that controls automatic functioning and decision making, and how we can leverage that knowledge to modify and improve our eating habits.

Some of this weeks episode highlights are:
8:25 All habits have a "loop" - i.e. a cue, a routine, and a reward. So what are your nutrition habits? Do they need to change?
12:42 Once you have a good awareness of what your automatic routines are now, you can make a decision if you want to keep those routines, or, decide if you want to train your brain to a new routine!
20:38 You can completely change your life by understanding and modifying your habits!

--- Full Raw Transcription of Podcast Below ---

Dr. Angela (00:00):
You are listening to the, keep the weight off podcast with Dr. Angela episode number 19,

Introduction (00:07):
Welcome to The Keep The Weight Off podcast, where we bust all the dieting myths and discover not just how to lose weight, but more importantly, how to keep it off. We go way beyond the food and we use science and psychology to give you strategies that work. And now your host, Dr. Angela Zechmann.

Dr. Angela (00:28):
Hey everyone. And welcome back to the podcast. Marchelle is back with us this week. Say, hi, Marchelle. I'm here. Hi everybody. She has had a lot going on, her son just graduated from high school. And so there's been lots of lots going on in her life, and she just couldn't be there for the recording last week, but I am super glad that you're back with us. This, this week I wanted to talk about habits because in the Journey Beyond Weight Loss course, we are in module three, which is all about habits. And so I thought that I would give our podcast listeners a little mini lesson in habits because they're really, really important in our weight loss journey. So it's, it's interesting. Cause you know, the first question you might want to ask is, well, what exactly is a habit? And so I looked it up on best place ever. Right? And they said that it is a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. Now, I think they might've been thinking about like drug habits when they were thinking about that.

Marchelle (01:42):
Although I'm really good at making bad habits.

Dr. Angela (01:46):
Like the sugar, the flour, the alcohol habit.

Dr. Angela (01:55):
So, but you know, there's brain chemistry behind this. So I want to explain that Aristotle said we are the sum of our actions and therefore our habits make all the difference. And then there's the famous Benjamin Franklin quote who said, and he said early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. So I know it was not interesting. So our habits do like they're, they're sort of like the sum total of our actions over the course of days and weeks and years. And we can make some amazing shifts if we just sort of change these little things that we're doing on a daily basis. And that's why I spent an entire module focusing on this in Journey Beyond Weight Loss. And as a matter of fact, I could do like a whole mini a whole four to six week mini course on habits.

Dr. Angela (02:56):
So there's just a lot to know, a lot to understand. We can have habits that really serve us like Benjamin Franklin. His habits really served him. And we can have habits that will thwart us every single time. And it's important to kind of figure out the difference. And so that's why I want to talk about this this week. It's interesting because we didn't really know too much about the brain until the 1990s they really started to developing a lot of neuroscience research on the brain in the 1990s. And they were beginning to understand more about how habits get formed. And it turns out that there's this very specific part of the brain called the basal ganglia and it manages our automatic behaviors for us. So you want to kind of think about this from an evolutionary perspective. As we were evolving as people we had to keep an eye out for danger.

Dr. Angela (04:02):
And so that was the only way we were going to survive is if we were ready for anything dangerous, that was going to kill us and eat us. Right. And so anything that we could do that was routine and mundane that we didn't have to think about our brain was going to figure out a way to make it easy for us so that we could keep our eyes open for danger. That's what's going on. That's what the basal ganglion does for us. The repetition of the sort of behaviors that we do every single day will get stored in the basal ganglia. So it's all unconscious and we don't have to think about it. So think about, I always give the example, think about what you do when you get into a car to drive. There's this whole routine that you go into and it's all automatic.

Dr. Angela (04:54):
So in the beginning, think about when you were first learning how to drive. There's no way it could be automatic. You had to think about every piece of it. Like where does the key go? How do you adjust the seats properly? How do you start the car? How do you put it in gear? How do you back up? Where's the brake, where's the accelerator? How do you change lanes that all has to be learned and it all takes time, but once you learn it, all these little movements become automatic. All you got to do is get into your car and go, and I don't know about you Marchelle, but many, many times I have gone from one place to another. I have changed lanes on the highway, no recollection of any of it. I might've been listening to a book on tape or listening to a podcast or talking to somebody in the car and everything just happens automatically.

Dr. Angela (05:54):
And so that's how, how our brains work like these things that we do on a routine regular basis. Think about you. And when you go get into the shower, do you think about every time you pick the soap up and how you wash your hair and all that stuff, you don't think about any of that, you just do it. And so that is what the basal ganglia is doing for us. It is managing all of this stuff sort of unconsciously. So we don't have to use any brain energy to think about it. Okay. Does that make sense?

Marchelle (06:27):
I think nowadays a lot of people call that muscle memory?

Dr. Angela (06:36):
I think so. Yeah. I mean, although

Marchelle (06:39):
Doing stuff automatically after a while...

Dr. Angela (06:42):
Yeah. In terms of the things that you do physically, yeah. I would call that muscle memory. I think that's a good analogy think habit. Well, I mean, there are habits of thought as well. And so, and then habits of things that you do. So the interesting thing about habits though, is the brain does have to be active during two phases of it. So there are actually three steps to a habit, to the formation of a habit. And this is all documented, perfectly in a book called ""The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,"" by Charles Duhigg. And I'm going to put that information in the show notes for you so that you guys, if you want to download the book or whatever, you can easily find it. So what happens is that there is a cue, so there'll be there'll be some sort of environmental trigger or some sort of cue.

Dr. Angela (07:36):
So for example, in order to get my car driving habit going, I'll have to actually see my car and get into my car. And then that starts the whole process. But after that, the basal ganglia will take over. And then, so what the basal ganglia is doing that whole car driving routine is called the routine. So you have your cue and then you have your routine. And then the habit has to be sealed in place by some sort of reward. So in the case of driving the car, the reward is getting to your destination. In the case of taking a shower, the reward is feeling clean and refreshed. In the case of brushing your teeth, the reward is having clean teeth and that wonderful, you know, clean breaths taste in your mouth in the case of making your bed, your reward is, you know, a nicely made bed and a sense of order. So all of these routines, these habits have a loop where there's a cue and then there's a routine. And then there's a reward during the end of it. And the brain has to be active during the cue phase and during the reward phase. But the routine piece of it is completely unconscious,

Marchelle (08:50):
Who I have an example of this, I think. Okay. So I was having a really hard time getting water in, and I was feeling really dehydrated, especially at work. So what I did is I got like a little Mason jar that I like to drink my drinks out of. I set it next to the sink. And anytime that I happened to go into the kitchen, I would see that glass sitting there and it would remind me to drink water. Oh, good. Okay. And then got into the habit of doing it every morning that I went into the kitchen.

Dr. Angela (09:25):
Yeah. So you get into the kitchen, your cue is seeing the Mason jar. The, the routine is you just fill the water, fill it up and drink the water. And then the what's the reward I'm being hydrated. So perfect. That's awesome. So you can use this to your advantage in weight loss too. So my recommendation is to start with your eating habits. So most people are creatures of habit when it comes to their food. So what I would recommend that you do, and, and this is for our podcast listeners is to figure out what habits you have right now. Like, what are your habits? Because remember most of it is unconscious. So you think about, okay, breakfast, what do you eat for breakfast? Do you even eat breakfast? What is your routine when it comes to eating breakfast? And then do you have any morning snacks?

Dr. Angela (10:26):
And then what about lunch? Do you, do you eat lunch? Do you miss lunch? Do you work through lunch? Do you snack in the afternoon? Do you stop by some place on your way home from work? Do you routinely go through a drive-through? Do you do you plan your meals ahead? Do you walk in the front door? And the first thing is to, you know, automatically go get a glass of wine. A lot of people do that. What about in the evening times? For some people once they have the kids put to bed there they go turn the TV on and they pop some popcorn or get a bag of chips in front of the TV, or crawling into bed can be acute. If you have the TV on at night, sometimes crawling into bed and eating in bed is a habit.

Dr. Angela (11:18):
So there are all of these different habits that we have with our eating. And then you also kind of want to notice if you have different routines on the weekends. And so this is why I recommend doing a whole week's worth of sort of tracking what your current habits are. And this is not because you want to be beating yourself up, or you can just kind of want to find out like what's going on right now and what of it is serving me and what of it is not serving me. So on the weekends, maybe, you know, you sleep in on the weekends. And so your Saturday and Sunday are totally different. And so maybe you're sleeping in and skipping breakfast on those days. And you know, things are opening up, at least in our areas of the country. Maybe you're starting to get back into restaurant routines, that sort of thing, restaurant habits.

Dr. Angela (12:10):
So, you know, the Friday night girls' night out or be pizza and beer or whatever it might be. So, so there's just a lot of sort of routines that you have around food. And that's what you want to sort of think about and tease out because the best part of this is that you can really tap into the power of your basal ganglia, because remember it's all unconscious. So once you have a good awareness of what your automatic routines are like, now you can make a decision as to whether or not you want to keep these routines or whether or not you want to train your brain into a new routine. And remember, it's going to take a little time and energy in the beginning to get your brain set on a new routine. But once you get the new routine set, your basal ganglia will take over and then you don't have to think about it and you can design your routines and you can design your rewards so that they serve you in your weight loss efforts. And so that's what I call weight loss on autopilot. Right? So Marchelle, you've been, you've been doing this, you've lost 60 pounds and kept it off over the last three years. And what, I'm just curious to know, like what sorts of routines have you developed that were different from what you were doing before and what kinds of struggles have you had?

Marchelle (13:51):
Well, it's so hard for me to go back and think, you know, just been a while now. So it's hard because, you know, my basal ganglia has taken over in a lot of cases and it just seems like I'm doing some things automatically. And it's hard for me to remember. I think one thing I'm getting out of what you're saying is that, you know, at first it, you know, it takes like a deliberate action and not to give up because it does get easier. Exactly. Yes. And, and this is true. This was true for me. One of the things I could, you know, as we were talking about breakfast, I used to skip breakfast and a lot of times I skip lunch too. Cause I was drinking coffee all day long and don't forget creamer with some copying. Exactly though. I at first, so what I did was I made these these frittatas, these egg frittatas that the doctor gave a recipe for and I would make on Sunday, I would make up a whole week's worth.

Marchelle (14:58):
And so that was the conscious effort that I put into. It was like prepping, you know, going to the store and buying this stuff and making it up. It only took one hour to prep everything for the whole week. And then every morning when I would be rushing, I wouldn't have to really think about what I was going to have. It was just there in the fridge. And I would just go and grab one and, you know, I'd be able to either pop it in the microwave at home or at work, but I had it and it got easier for me to do that. You know, as time went on, his breakfast was really hard for me. I never really cared about breakfast. I still have a hard time with breakfast. I'm I mean, I'm not gonna lie. I mean, if that's the first thing I know that I'm getting off of my routine when I started skipping breakfast.

Marchelle (15:47):
That's that's, that's the first thing that telltale sign. Interesting. Yeah, because it's always been, it's just, it's just always been a problem for me. So so yeah, but that's the first thing, you know, that's the first thing to go when my routine gets off or, you know, or I have stuff going on in life, like right now I'm really struggling just because, you know, my son just graduated from high school and of course all the, you know, the preparation and that, you know, goes into that. And then, you know, we had a big party, so we had people coming from all over the place. And I sort of like in one weekend, things went itself and I, you know, and I could have like beat myself up for it and, you know, like what I used to do, you know, I would just be so hard on myself and I'd feel like a total failure, but I'm just giving, you know, I allowed myself permission to you know, to splurge and what was going to happen because we had this beautiful cake made for his graduation.

Dr. Angela (16:47):
I saw a picture on Facebook. I was like, wow.

Marchelle (16:51):
And I mean, it was amazing. So so I knew, you know, I mean, I knew those temptations were going to be there, but so, you know, come tomorrow though. I also know that it's time for me to get back on track. You know, I didn't, you know, it was a weekend of pretty much doing whatever I wanted. And then, you know, now I'm getting back on track and I am not going to beat myself up for it. I'm just going to move on to the, you know, like I always say the next right meal tonight. We did, you know, tonight, my husband and I, you know, we made, we made steak, you know, and vegetables and you know, now we're getting back on track and you know, the parties cleaned up and, you know, we're moving on back into our normal routine. So

Dr. Angela (17:31):
I think this is huge Marchelle, because what you're saying is the new habits are normal for you. And this was an anomaly. That's what I'm saying. I didn't really like that.

Marchelle (17:45):
You just get right back on track because because it's become more normal. Wow. That's kinda cool. I didn't really,

Dr. Angela (17:52):
Yeah. Your brain wants to go back to what is now normal for it. And normal nourishing meal plan. Tardy behavior

Marchelle (18:01):
Was not normal. Yeah. I mean, that's just used to be like chips and drive-throughs and all that kind of stuff used to be normal, but no, I mean, it was, and it was easier because I had also, what I did was knowing that this was going to happen when I was at the grocery store, you know, buying stuff for the party. I also bought, you know, like my meat and vegetables to get back on track the next week. So it was easy for me to just go to the freezer, take it out, you know, and just start back the way that I used to, you know, that I used to eat, you know, the last weekend or last week, or maybe it's been a couple of weeks now. I don't know. I kind of lost track of time. So yeah, I fell. Okay. So that's, you know, that's just something that's been a struggle for me is breakfast and, and I think now it just, it gets easier and easier as you exactly.

Dr. Angela (18:52):
Yeah, that is so cool. Very cool. Nice job, Marchelle.

Marchelle (18:57):
Hey, thanks. Yeah. I didn't even prepare that.

Dr. Angela (19:04):
We've had patients who talk about like this one gal. I remember her really specifically because she said that she had just retired and now that she had retired, she would stay up late and she turns out, it turns out her natural bio rhythms are to stay up until one or two in the morning and to get up around eight or nine, but her husband was still working. And so her husband was going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. And so she had all this time after he went to bed. And so that would be her cue sheet. This is what she told me. When my husband goes to bed, this is my cue to turn on the TV and start eating. And so I told her about habits and how our brains work. And so what she did is she designed herself a new habit because she realized that the cue for her was the TV being turned on.

Dr. Angela (19:57):
And so she decided, well, there's not all that much, all that interesting on TV. Anyway, I'm just going to read a book instead. And so she read a book and she got herself, some herbal tea, I think instead, and she'd just stay up reading and then she'd go to bed at 12 or one or whatever time it made sense to her. And it was, that was a whole new, it was just as enjoyable for her. I mean, she still had this nice sort of reward at the end of it all, a relaxation time for herself, but she didn't have the negative consequences of all of that weight gain from the TV and eating. So there are ways to do this. If you figure out what the cue is and figure out what your routine is, and you can either shift your routine, you can get rid of the cue, you can change the reward a little, so that there's a new way of doing the habit, right?

Dr. Angela (20:52):
So that you can, you can completely change your life this way. You really can. It's super, super fun, but I do have some little guidelines or secrets. If you decide that you want to want to start a new habit. Here is what I have three little secrets here for you. The first thing I want you to understand is that it's gonna take time for the basal ganglia to be able to record and remember your new behaviors. So imagine how much time it took you to learn to drive a car. It was like three to six months probably. And so you have to be really patient with yourself when you're learning these new habits. So I would say three to six months of pretty consistent routine and your basal ganglia, it should just get easier and easier for you all the time. In the beginning, you have to think about every little movement in every piece of the routine, but it just gets easier and easier over time. And I would think that by six, surely by nine months, it should be a pretty well ingrained habit. And that's the way it is for you. You started, Marchelle, your sugar detox. It's been over a year now. And so your new nutrition habits are pretty well established. And so to you, having a splurge weekend, is weird, and you're ready to get back to your normal habits.

Marchelle (22:15):
I think that's true.

Dr. Angela (22:17):
I think that's really cool. The second thing that I want our podcast listeners to know is that when you're in the process of developing a new habit, remember that your brain is always trying to conserve energy. And if something really, really stressful happens like last year, when the pandemic hit, we had a whole bunch of people who were starting new habits, and then the pandemic hit and the brain went into shock. Everybody's brain was in shock. And so they weren't able to continue that and they felt badly about it. And I'm like, Hey, that's called normal brain behavior. When something shocking happens to you, whether it's a pandemic, whether it's your mother falling and breaking her hip, whether it's somebody going off on maternity leave at work and you end up having to pick up a whole bunch of extra work hours, whatever it might be when your brain is under stress, it's going to take the easy way out, which means no new habits are going to be, it's not going to be working on any new habits.

Dr. Angela (23:24):
Okay. So so you're going to go back to the old habits and I want you to think about habits in terms of like compare it to a highway, like, like a habit that you've had for decades and decades are like a five lane highway where everybody's going 80 miles an hour. Like this is well-worn well-established new habits are kind of like a country road through a wheat field and you're just sort of knocking down some wheat and trying to make a path through it. So that's why it feels harder, you know? And so if you run into a stressful situation while you're in the process of knocking down wheat, so you can make a path through the wheat field, your brain is going to be, Hey, we're doing this five lane highway. Like we're not going to be wasting our time with this new stuff.

Dr. Angela (24:11):
So, so just be aware of that. Anytime that you're trying to develop a new habit, if you end up in a stressful situation and you go back in your old habits, that's called normal brain behavior. That doesn't mean stop doing what you're doing. It just means start over again when you are through the stressful situation don't ever give up. Okay. All right. And then the next thing that I want you to know is that it can oftentimes help to start very, very small with a new habit. So there's a guy named BJ Fogg, who is a researcher at Stanford, and he is director of the Behavior Design Lab there. So think about the terminology - Behavior Design, we're going to 'design' new behaviors. That's what he helps people do. And he has an awesome Ted talk. We'll put a link to his Ted talk up in the show notes as well.

Dr. Angela (25:09):
And he's an advocate of starting with very, very small changes and then using your brain's natural capacity for reward to seal in the new, small behavior. So in his Ted talk, he talks about, you know, somebody wants to establish the habit of flossing, their teeth. And so he recommends to start with just one tooth, just floss, one tooth. And he recommends that after you're done flossing, your one tooth that you reward yourself with that very audible - meaning out loud - 'great job', or 'you're awesome', so that you end up secreting some reward chemicals in your brain because the brain likes that. So you floss your one tooth, you go through the behavior and then you say 'you're awesome' or 'great job', or whatever it is that is your way of celebrating. And then the next time you do that for a few days, and then you've flossed two teeth, and then you've flossed three teeth.

Dr. Angela (26:14):
And then after a while you're flossing, your whole mouth and the behavior has been rewarded over and over and over again. So it's just easy to do it. And so we've had students in Journey Beyond Weight Loss, do this. They've made all kinds of like small incremental changes and they just kept working at them. I I'm thinking of one gal in particular. She said she wanted to start exercising and she decided to start small. And so she just went outside and when she had some steps in her front path and she just went up and down the steps once, and then she'd give herself a woo-hoo or you're awesome. And she just kept doing that. And then she built up and built up, and now she's a regular gym goer! So you can start very, very slowly with these new habits and just design them into your life.

Dr. Angela (27:07):
So, so this is why I say, you know, we could do, we could do a whole four to six week immersion on something like this. And and just really think through, you know, what are your habits? What kinds of habits do you want to develop? What kinds of habits do you want to let go of? And, and it's not just about food and exercise. There are all kinds of habits that you can develop that will support you in your weight loss journey. I talked about meditation last week. Your sleep habits are super important. I'll do a podcast on that soon. There, there's just so much to think about when it comes to your weight loss journey. And I don't want anyone to think that any of this, this can be easy once you get, once you start working with your brain, right?

Dr. Angela (27:58):
So I've just been giving you a taste of all of this on this podcast. We do a whole lot more in Journey Beyond Weight Loss. And I will give you three resources to check out. The first is the book, the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The second is a book by James Clear called atomic habits. And I believe he's got a blog too. And you could just join his blog and get notifications. And then BJ Fogg's book called Tiny Habits. And I would definitely watch his Ted talk cause it's great. And it's really entertaining as well. These guys are just all really brilliant thinkers on this subject and what they have to teach will help you in all areas of your life, not just in weight loss and the like, I would recommend that you do the little exercise I suggested to just to bring awareness to what your current habits are, what your current eating habits are.

Dr. Angela (29:01):
And, you know, you can look at all of your other habits too, but I would start with your eating habits because they're the most important and think about what you might want to shift and how you might want to do it. And leave me a comment at or on iTunes. You can comment there, or you can comment on YouTube as well at Dr. Angela Zechmann on YouTube ( And just let me know what it is that you discovered and what kind of shifts you might want to make. Marchelle, Did you have any, any other comments at all or any questions at all?

Marchelle (29:41):
I Was just thinking about how much Journey Beyond Weight Loss has helped me. So if you guys are interested in actually doing some deeper work, then you got to get in on that. Yeah. So this is just kind of a taste of it. You know, what your Journey Beyond Weight Loss, and there's a lot more to learn. There is.

Dr. Angela (30:03):
There is so, all right, great. So thanks for listening. All of you who are our podcast listeners, make sure that you've subscribed and make sure to leave leave ratings and reviews and comments. We love reading all of that and we will see you all next week. Take care everybody. Bye everybody.

Closing (30:22):
Hey, if you really want to lose weight and keep it off for good, your next step is to sign up for Dr. Angeles free weight loss course, where you're going to learn everything you need to get started on your weight loss journey, the right way, just head over to to sign up. Also, it would be awesome if you could take a few moments and write a review on iTunes. Thanks. And we'll see you in Journey Beyond Weight Loss.


Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, by James Clear

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, by BJ Fogg BJ Fogg

Ted Talk:

- Dr. Angela


This episode was produced and marketing by the Get Known Podcast Service


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