The 4 rules of habit building applied to healthy eating

This winter I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits where he goes into detail about an entire system for creating better habits and breaking others. I found that it was very similar to what I teach my food coaching clients.

It’s not rocket science and there are some very important yet easy changes that you can make in order to get consistent with a new habit, especially when it comes to eating healthier and exercising. 

The good part is that splitting this system into steps makes it easier for you to be aware of the phase you’re in and what you need to do in that step. Also, it helps you figure out what other easy tweak you can do next in order to break a bad habit. Because sometimes we think we’ve done everything we could and didn’t succeed, when the truth is that we just got stuck in the motivation dip or wrong system and gave up.

So here are the four big rules that James Clear focuses on in his habit building process, applied to my own experience in food coaching.

Rule #1. Make it obvious. Change your environment

If there’s any unhealthy food in your house, you or someone you care for will eventually eat it. The opposite is also true: if there’s some healthy food around, you or someone close will eventually eat it. 

Changing your environment is one of the most important steps in changing your habits. And when it comes to food, it’s one of the first things I ask my food coaching clients to work on. 

The most important changes of environment when trying to improve your diet:

  • Having healthy ingredients at home and at the office to cook or improvise a snack when you need to,
  • Learning some new healthy recipes,
  • Buying fresh produce from the farmers market instead of ultra processed stuff from the overpriced supermarkets, 
  • Replacing the regular snacks in the office with healthier ones: fruit, baked veggies, yoghurt, some frozen berries to mix in the yoghurt, flavoured tea etc.

Rule #2. Make it satisfying

Translating this rule to your food habits, the most obvious thing to do is to switch the boring recipes for some irresistible ones. 

When most people think “diet” they think “chicken breast with lettuce”. That’s boring even the first time you have it, not to mention the n-th time.

So in this case, my advice is to collect some recipes that suit your fitness goal. Find that goldilocks balance between tasty, interesting and easy to prepare that works best for you. 

What I do with my clients is to share all the interesting recipes I know and I come across, making sure they fit their goals and preferences, along with a shopping list to make sure they have everything they need, and then they can choose from there based on what they want to have. Or, another option is including a list of restaurant dishes that you can order, so you don’t have to cook in.

You can do this yourself if you don’t have the help of a nutritionist or food coach. It will take some research work and, depending on your fitness goal, you might need to check the ingredients, macros, cooking methods, but it’s definitely something you can do.

Play with recipes, follow cooking accounts on instagram, experiment with spices. Go crazy 🙂

Rule #3. Make it easy

It means priming your environment to support the creation of your new habits. How can you make things even easier? 

Let’s take the “make it obvious” step that means changing your environment. Making it easy to choose something healthy means creating a kind of system that you can rely on over and over again. 

This can mean making a grocery shopping list in advance with all the ingredients you need for the following week. Or, if you use a shopping app, just saving the favourite items and ordering them again faster next time.

Also, foodwise, making it easy can mean prepping some of the ingredients in advance. If you already have some cooked rice or pasta or quinoa from a few days ago, all you have to do is add some veggies and a source of protein (that can also be cooked in advance, once for the entire week) and you have yourself a nutritious and complete meal.

Making it easy also includes things such as finding a gym or a place to train close to work or home, so that the effort you make to get there is not that big and you don’t use it as an excuse to skip the training. 

Rule #4. Make it attractive

Making a habit attractive means being more aware of the people and places that surround you. 

If you live and work around people who are not at all interested in working out, living healthier, and eating better, it will be much more difficult for you to do so. Try to find a “tribe” that you can join. People at your gym, some colleagues that share the same interests, a running group, a coach – they can be your support in this journey because for them, the new habits you are trying to build are normality.

You can also make it more attractive by having an accountability partner, a coach or a form of gratification every time you do your habit. That’s why habit tracking works. You can write your daily habit in a calendar and cross over every day when you did it.

You can also think of a reward for completing your habit for a few days in a row. When it comes to healthier eating, I recommend non food rewards that are also in the range of wellness and health such as booking a day at the spa or a massage. 


I hope these ideas help you with some more applicable and actionable ideas in order to improve your eating habits.

As I said, they work because they are easy, interesting, and keep you motivated and supported to do the actions over and over again until they become habits and part of your new identity.

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