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Triggers, Habits and Autopilot: Why We Fail at Losing Fat

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In 1993 a man called Eugene suffered from a potentially fatal condition called Viral Encephalitis. He was on the brink of death, yet over time, like some type of miracle he recovered. His nervous system was intact, his motor skills remained and the doctors were amazed at the depth of his recovery.

This is a nice enough story, potentially heartwarming but what does it have to do with losing fat?

A lot. Perhaps it may tell us the most important part of the fat loss puzzle and how we can solve it.

Eugene, although he made a full physical recovery hadn’t fully recovered. He couldn’t remember his doctors names, his friends, or what he had for breakfast. In fact, some days he would wake up, cook breakfast and after eating, fall back asleep for an hour. He would then wake up and perform the exact same routine.

As you can imagine this led to the intrigue of many doctors, neurologists and psychologists. Even though Eugene exhibited no organic damage to his brain, his behaviour showed some very concrete changes.

As time went on, Eugene started to live at home with his wife, who would take him for walks each day. She was warned by Eugene’s physicians not to let him go by himself, as he would get lost and potentially hurt.

Of course, whenever something like this is introduced as a possibility, it is bound to happen. One day Eugene took himself off for a walk. When his wife could not find him in the house with the door wide opened, she panicked. She called the police, alerted the neighbours and searched the street frantically trying to find her husband.

As she came home devastated at the thought might be injured, or possibly dead, she was shocked to see Eugene sitting on the couch, watching TV as though nothing had happened. What had happened that allowed Eugene to find his way home?

What Eugene had unwittingly discovered was the way habits are wired in the brain and how they control each and every aspect of our lives. There is a small lump of tissue in the brain, located near the brain stem and other primitive parts of the brain, called the Basal Ganglia. This is where all our habits (good or bad) are formed and stored.

Where all habits start, the Basal Ganglia

Where all habits start, the Basal Ganglia

We formed this because remembering everything we have to do in detail every day is exhausting. Think of the first day you learned to reverse a car. You had to check the mirror, check the handbrake, seatbelt on, lift the garage door, check the lights and watch for pedestrians and traffic. The first time anyone does this they end up a sweaty, nervous mess. Now after performing this action you can do all of this effortlessly while picking music, checking your hair and rehearsing what events you have on for the day while barely thinking about the driving you are doing automatically.

Lets have a look at how our habits are formed. If we can understand this, we can start applying this newfound knowledge to actually make the challenges we want in our health, nutrition and lifestyle.


There is a loop our brains use to make this process more efficient and less costly. It has 3 components:

Cue –  This is a trigger to tell our brain to go into an automatic mode and what habit to follow.

Routine – This is the physical, mental or emotional pattern that we then carry out.

Reward – This helps your brain remember if this particular loop s worth remembering (and implementing) for the future.

Simply learning how habits are formed can make them easier to control.Also, once we can break a habit into it’s components, we can start to fiddle with it to see if we can change our outcomes. Lets look at how some are formed (and how institutions use this against us to make us eat their products) and how they damage our waistlines.

We are tired from work. It has been stressful, we have worked tirelessly, our boss has been breathing down our neck and deadlines are looming with impending certainty. This is the cue for a habit to take place. Once we experience that, we may try to deal with the lull in energy for reaching for something sweet, such as a chocolate or sugary drink. This is the routine part of the occasion. After consuming whatever the food is, we experience a slight elation and elevated energy. This is where the brain associates this particular food choice with a reward.

When we look at this in further detail, we can see how many things in life are setup to elicit the same response. McDonalds is a perfect example of this, every store is architecturally the same, what employees say to you the customer and the facilities provided. This is to get you to get in the habit of buying food from there and the foods themselves are designed to trigger a fast reward so your brain can make an association and start to ingrain that patter. Fries begin breaking down as soon as they enter your mouth, delivering a hit of carbohydrate, fat and salt to light up the pleasure centres in your brain. This just enforces the habit loop (this also explains the success of Salted Caramel flavours, the combination of sugar and sweet is nearly impossible for  any animal to resist) and make the behaviour harder to break.

From the above information can you see how easily our habits (that don’t serve us) can make it impossible to lose fat. Our brain is simply engineered to work this way which puts our conscious willpower in a perilous situation. It is literally fighting against a brain chemistry and structure that allows us to thrive as a species and succeed in so many areas of our lives.

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How to Make New Habits and get Off Autopilot

The good news is we can break and recreate any habit we want. What we need to do is understand how to address each aspect we have talked about above and create a strategy to achieve it.

A study done in 2002 basically showed us why people who success with exercise make it a habit. 92% of people exercise because of how it makes them feel – they grew to enjoy and actually crave the endorphins. 67% of exercisers who were consistent enjoyed the sense of accomplishment of tracking results and improving.

What we can do to facilitate this is to have a simple cue to remind us to exercise – this can be as simple as leaving running shoes next to the bed or driving past the gym on the way home from work. What we have to do is push through the initial discomfort until our brain starts to crave the reward of exercise. The reward is the most important part of creating an exercise habit. What are some other ways of rewarding yourself after training?

  • Track the program results either in an app or program folder the old fashioned way
  • Finish your training with an exercise you particularly enjoy –  whatever you like is the winner here
  • Shower immediately after – feeling fresh after exercise is an intoxicating feeling
  • Have your protein shake immediately post-workout – this is even better with a nice protein shake with some carbs in it!
  • Exercise with a friend – this is one of the many reasons why we do semi-private training. The expectations of other people create cravings.

Want to create a new eating habit? You need to work out a reward for that. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have a scheduled cheat meal. Plan it. Look at this article for more.
  • Eat breakfast at a set time. This habit will cue the best behaviour for the rest of the day.
  • Create a reward for achieving a good week of eating. Do something fun. Do NOT make it a food reward. This will make that a habit!
  • Eat a salad first. You will come to crave the freshness

Now we know how to create a new habit? How do we get off autopilot and create new ones?

Simple – We identify the cue, change the routine and crave the reward.

Eat chocolate at 2pm each day? Identify the trigger. Try a herbal tea you enjoy. After a while this will be what you crave!

Drink wine every night? Identify the trigger.

Smoke when stressed? Identify the trigger.

This is one of the biggest reasons that food journals work. It isn’t the act of recording (although that may deter you from eating some seriously bad stuff!) it is the process of identifying the trigger. Once this is done new habits can be formed.

As you can see, this process can be applied to any area of life. There is also a lot more to say on this topic and how you can use habits to improve your life, so stay tuned for more info coming soon!

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