I’ve heard it a million times. It takes 21 days to break a habit. Where did this come from? Why is it accepted as truth and repeated ad nauseam on the internets? Well, it turns out that this 21 days myth first appeared in a self help book published in 1960 by a plastic surgeon. This book has since inspired an entire genre of self help books. Here’s the problem. The 21 days figure was based on this surgeon’s observations, his observations of his own patients. Actual studies have put the number somewhere around 70 on average. A study I read recently gives a range of 18-256 days. In this study of 90 participants, all were able to break their desired habit but it took, on average, dramatically longer than 21 days to do so. 21 days is a myth. Again, I have very strong feelings about any sort of one size fits all strategy. We are all so different. Different things work for different people. We have different biochemistries, different bodies. If one thing truly did work for everyone, we’d all be whole. How can you explain allergies if our bodies all operated under the exact same rules. They don’t. It follows that there will be no clear outline for exactly how long it will take for us to form new habits. It was one big decision that led me to Keto, but it was a thousand tiny decisions over time that led me to success with Keto. It doesn’t take 21 days to form a new habit. This over simplified mantra can supply one person with inspiration and another with a sense of defeat. What’s wrong with me that I did something consistently for 21 days and it’s still a struggle. Why isn’t this a habit yet? What’s wrong with you? Not a thing. :)
When we engage in a new behavior we are rewiring our brains. There is a book called Brain over Binge in which the author details her triumph over binge eating disorder by separating her rational brain from her primitive brain. She describes how the primitive part of the brain has one goal, survival. When we starve our bodies through dieting, this part of our brain takes over and sends very loud signals to EAT. These binge urges can be ignored but it’s not easy. It took me years to conquer my binge eating disorder. I did not have one giant moment of triumph. I had thousands of small moments, where a choice guided me away from a binge. According to the author of Brain over Binge, each time I made the choice not to binge, I was rewiring my brain. It’s true, our brains have amazing plasticity. We are literally laying down new neural pathways all the time. So what exactly is a habit, and is our food choices the result of habit, choice, conditioning, culture? I believe it’s a combination of all of these factors. Again, it’s a thousand little things.
If you are just starting a ketogenic diet, you’ll be making lots of giant changes. You may be eating in a completely different way than before. Be kind to yourself as you form new habits. You won’t make perfect choices all of the time. But it’s time that will be your biggest asset. Each meal adds up. Each day that goes by will give your body the time it needs to adjust to your new life. It took me 30 days. After 30 days I felt great. I bounced out of bed. I noticed a significant decrease in my hunger. I didn’t have the aches and pains that plagued me from the moment I stepped out of bed. My dry skin cleared up. I didn’t suffer from intrusive food thoughts. As each day passed, the benefits started piling up. 30 days full of choices. Not one day, not one decision.
We tend to be completely unforgiving when it comes to our food choices. One not too hot choice and we throw our hands up and declare that we’ve blown it yet again, and we quit. Well, I quit. Time and time again. But just as one good choice doesn’t leapfrog us to our goal, neither will a poor choice plunge us all the way back to the beginning. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time to form new habits. It will be hard at first, and easier and easier as you go on. After 30 days I had stockpiled a long list of reasons to keep eating a ketogenic diet. Yes, I lost weight, but that wasn’t the reason I continued. I had lost weight each and every which way I had ever tried but I had eventually always given up and returned to the eating patterns that had landed me at almost 300 pounds. Perhaps it was because I just couldn’t stick with it long enough to form new habits. Perhaps it was because I didn’t stick with it long enough to notice all of the benefits, aside from weight loss, which led me to continue. Whatever the reason, every time I went to make a food choice, before it became a habit, I thought of all the ways I felt better, my mood my energy, my sleep. I would make a choice that would either set me back or allow me to keep enjoying these benefits. And before I knew it, these choices didn’t take effort. They became habits. It took me 30 days. It may take you 14 or 144, but if you keep making those choices it will become a habit. You’ve got this :)