Harness the ‘behavior chain’ to break unhealthy eating habits for good

September 13, 2019 Off By

Pinpointing my motivations for doing, well, just about anything, is a fruitless task. The inner-workings of the human psyche are largely enigmatic to me. But when a coworker introduced me to the “behavior chain,” a model that helps you to identify which actions trigger specific behaviors, I felt the fog liftOnce you know how the behavior chain works, you can use it to hack all of your habits—but it might be most useful when it comes to nutrition.

“Typically, the behavior chain looks at behaviors we want to stop, or that are detrimental,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Silvershein, LCSW. When it comes to healthy eating though, it’s possible to use it not just to identify a perceived problem but also to put a positive spin on it, which helps you make good choices down the line.

First, let’s establish the ground rules of the behavior chain. “The behavior chain is a tool that enables an individual to better understand the function of a particular behavior,” says Silvershein. “While attempting to complete a behavior chain analysis, an individual begins to slowly dissect all of the factors that lead to the specific behavior they are focusing on.”

The four steps of the behavior chain are the trigger, thought, action, and consequence. By following the breadcrumbs back to the trigger of a certain action, you can begin to understand why you did something in the first place. And the next step is to be mindful of how you react to that trigger in the future.  For example, let’s say you duck out on your lunch break and head to your local grocery store to pickup lunch.

1. Trigger/Prompting event

Entering the supermarket.

2. Thought

You see a box of cookies, which looks delicious, but won’t keep you full until dinnertime. At the same time, you see that the line at the salad station is basically out the door.

3. Action

You opt for a pre-made salad instead (and grab the cookies to share with your colleagues as an afternoon snack).

4. Consequence

Your salad keeps you full until it’s time for your afternoon snack without waiting in a mile-long queue. Your teammates give you MVP status for coming in hot with the chocolate chip cookies. High fives all around.

Once you get the hang of how the behavior chain functions, you’ll recognize situations that are triggering you to make decisions that you can stand behind. So keep an eye out, and harness your own innate superpowers of decision (no science-fiction super-drug required).

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about intuitive eating is right here:

Here are the 5 golden rules of eating, according to a doctor and a dietitian. Plus, the only trick you need to eat more fiber.