Science of Habit Change for Sustainable Weight Loss – Part 1

Year 2020 is finally here!  And if the idea of starting the New Year with resolutions of grandeur to finally break that bad habit wasn’t motivation enough, the fact that we are embarking on a whole new decade sure is! 

That said, while 77 percent of people who commit to a New Year’s resolution, stick to it for at least a week, research conducted by the University of Scranton1 reveals that only eight percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions will actually fulfill those goals in a timely fashion—if ever. Research from Athletic social networking site Strava2 reveals that January 12th is the most common day for the formerly resolute to start waving the dreaded white flag of defeat.  So, what is one to do when willpower stops being enough? 

Two words…Establish Habits. 

Think about how many tasks you do daily without thinking about it. Brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, showering, and even more potentially dangerous tasks such as driving to work, school or your favorite restaurant and back home only to realize you don’t even remember how you got there!  And this isn’t a matter of mindlessly driving; for in the case of danger your reflexes would kick in to avoid danger. But in those moments where the brain is able to predict possible outcomes based on past stored information, it does so to conserve energy for processing new information efficiently.

When it comes to habits it is recommended that one adopts the mindset of “forming good habits” vs “quitting old ones”. The idea of focusing on the positive aspects of change instead of the negative is a pivotal paradigm shift towards goal achievement. Once you tap into that mental frequency, “the process of building a habit can be divided into four phases of what has been coined a “Habit Loop3.”  They are cues, craving, response and reward. Breaking it down into these fundamental parts can then allow us  to understand what a habit is, how it works and then devise a strategy to improve upon it4.” 

So let’s analyze the four stages of habit starting with cue.  A cue is anything that triggers a specific behavior or emotion; usually as a result of a remembered reward or feeling.  Being quite primal in nature, it is vital to identify triggers that initiate unhealthy choices and rewards associated with them before you can successfully establish healthy habits.  

Example: Smell of coffee cues you to start thinking about the familiar taste and feeling associated with it.

The next phase of habit is cravings which is the feeling experienced as a result of actions taken on cue.  It is also the body’s way of signaling to the brain it’s desire to establish homeostasis or feeling of security. One of the most encouraging things about this stage is the fact that cravings can be redirected or rewritten based on changing the meanings of the cues associated with it. 

Example: Starbucks/Coffee = craving for something sweet

The third phase; response, is the action or thought that is carried out in order to satisfy the craving. And get this- we normally focus on responses only IF the action does not require more energy than you are willing to expend. We’ll discuss this concept in more detail later, so for now just understand a response is basically about what we have become comfortable with based on a perceived reward.

Example: Without even thinking you order a donut (or two) to compliment the bitterness of your coffee.

Finally, the coveted reward. Rewards are an important part of the human experience. When you think of mankind’s evolution,  primal rewards such as sex, food, shelter and tools were and still are a part of survival and everyday decision making. So it goes without saying, establishing a reward system is a must for habit change.  And as with cues and cravings; rewards are dependent on an individual’s perspective according to their personal experience and can be changed. But until a new reward association is assigned, we will automatically respond to the previous phases of habit according to past experiences. 

Example: The euphoric feeling you experience as you bite into your soft sugary donut, washing it down with what feels like warm hugs of sunshine.

See how the different stages of habit feed into and from one another? With this understanding, we are now able to start developing a strategy to break the “habit loop” and create a new ‘healthier’ habits which we will address in Part II of Science of Habit Change for Sustainable Weight-Loss! 


  3. Duhigg, Charles, author. (2014). The Power Of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  4. Clear, James (2017). Atomic Habits. Place of publication not identified: RANDOM House BUSINESS