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Weight Loss and the Science of Habit Formation

Habits can be both good and bad, according to experts and any casual observer of human behavior. Good habits are believed to underlie successful living — habits such as making the bed, putting out the trash, and locking the door at night are routine behaviors that become nearly automatic.

Bad habits are blamed for many difficulties in life, from smoking cigarettes to binge-watching videos to eating junk food. A habit is an “action triggered by impulses that are automatically activated upon exposure to cues, due to learned cue-action associations,” according to Benjamin Gardner from the Department of Psychology at King’s College London, the corresponding author of a study on habit formation and weight loss.

“Maintaining weight loss requires long-term behaviour change,” states Dr. Gardner, in a premonition of the studies showing that without behavior change, most of the weight rebounds when dieters stop taking Ozempic and other GLP-1 drugs. It’s not just breaking bad habits that changes behavior, but also learning beneficial habits:

Weight loss is more likely to be sustained where people develop new habits that support weight management, and break old habits that may undermine such efforts.

Dr. Gardner’s team goes so far as to say the bad habit needs to be “displaced” with a new habit and that techniques of habit change “have been underused in weight loss maintenance interventions to date.” So what are some of the techniques of habit modification?

In a review article entitled, “The Science of Habit and Its Implications for Student Learning and Well-being,” author Logan Fiorella from the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia concludes:

Habit-based interventions may support durable changes in students’ recurring behaviors by disrupting cues that activate bad habits and creating supportive and stable contexts for beneficial ones.

Medical/health writer Jamie Santa Cruz interviewed a number of experts on habit change for a piece in VibrantLife. She cooks the process down to seven steps:

  • Know the when and where.
  • Zero in on your “why.”
  • Record your habit.
  • Revamp your surroundings.
  • Swap the old for something new.
  • Change up your language.
  • Plan for temptation.

Most sources recommend making a written plan or creating written goals, then tracking in writing, so that the tracking itself becomes a habit. You have to make a plan, too, for not beating yourself up if you fail: expect it, address it, and get back on track. Alcoholics Anonymous advises staying sober until tomorrow.

In the coming days, I will be taking a longer look at habit formation and substance use disorders. In particular, parsing the very thorough and highly informative article by Dr. Gardner, mentioned above, covering the topic of habit-based health behavior change interventions. Due to the lack of science into what, exactly, is causing habits to form and what, exactly, needs to be done to break or retrain a habit, Dr. Gardner poses more questions than answers. We’ll see what we can find.

Written by Steve O’Keefe. First published March 12, 2024.


“The Science of Habit and Its Implications for Student Learning and Well-being,” Educational Psychology Review, March 2020.

“Breaking habits or breaking habitual behaviours? Old habits as a neglected factor in weight loss maintenance,” Appetite, July 2021.

“7 Steps to Break a Habit,” VibrantLife, retrieved March 11, 2024.

“Developing habit-based health behaviour change interventions: twenty-one questions to guide future research,” Psychology & Health, November 2021.

Image Copyright: Manan Chhabra on Unsplash


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