05/11/2011 11:36 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Behavior Is Very Hard to Change

I read recently that we "greatly underestimate how hard it is to change behavior." I have to agree. As a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders and weight control, I see this every day. Not only in my clients, but in myself, my family and even my dog.

We are all creatures of habit. Cody, my dog, somehow knows when it's time to eat and starts begging within 10 minutes of when she is normally fed. She just knows. She does get thrown off when the time change happens, but that only lasts for three days (I timed it) and then she is back to her normal begging cycle. It's amazing.

We human animals are no different when it comes to eating and weight control. One client -- let's call him Barry -- came home from work at the same time everyday and would start salivating on his way up the hill to his house, as he knew he was going to get his "treat." He had so trained himself that just the act of driving home created this craving and intense desire to have his favorite food. Barry learned this only after deciding to change his behavior and no longer went straight home to eat. He drove up the hill, salivating and picturing his favorite food, but instead of heading straight for it, he made the choice to put on his tennis shoes and go out for a long walk. He broke the chain of behavior. It was very hard for Barry to do.

His eating behavior had been in place for years. He was 60 pounds overweight, and unhappy about it, yet this daily after-work practice was very strong. It was his reward for a day of hard work, and he looked forward to it. Once he was driving home, salivating, picturing the food, feeling the happy feelings of the anticipated experience, it took every ounce of strength he had to go get those tennis shoes, put them on and leave the house foodless. The first few steps of the walk were hard, as he was still wishing he were at home eating. Then, almost magically, after walking for a while, he began to enjoy the walk. He started noticing the pretty scenery and feeling proud of himself for altering his behavior. He knew he was not only burning calories with the exercise, but he calculated how many he would have eaten if he had done his normal routine. He figured that was about 800 calories.

By the time Barry got home from his walk, he didn't want those 800 calories. He chose a low-calorie fruit snack and was happy with 150 calories instead. He was then able to enjoy a nice dinner, not already full from his afternoon binge, and 650 calories down for the day. It took Barry about three months to make this his new habit. The first few weeks were very hard and he sometimes chose the food over the walk. Now, a year later, Barry is down forty pounds and feeling much better.

Changing behavior is very hard. Losing weight is hard. It is entirely possible though. If you can choose one thing to change and focus on that for a few months, like Barry, you can see great improvement. Good luck and let me know how you're doing!

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Irene's new book, "Foodaholic," will be out this summer. Sign up here for updates.