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How to Create Healthy Eating Habits With This Insight From the Weird “White Rat Study”

Healthy eatingCreating healthy eating habits that stick is often the toughest part about getting healthy.

Anyone can begin, and many of us do begin, but very few people “finish.” Just look at the hoards of people each new year in the gym. Where are they six months later? Most of them are gone.

But there’s a major reason why most people fail. And it’s because they take the same old “baby steps” advice, without any real concrete strategies for making that happen, and they ignore the biggest barrier to success: their own psychology.

In this article I want to show you a dramatically different way to get healthy eating habits to stick – rather than that same old “baby steps” type stuff you typically hear.

And this all begins with a highly unethical, bizarre psychology experiment done almost a hundred years ago.

The Bizarre Experiment

How to Create Healthy Eating Habits the White Rat Study

Sometimes the biggest barrier to us sticking to the healthy habits we know are going to change our life is simple: we hate doing them.

Think about it. For those of you that hate running or hate the treadmill, running on a treadmill makes you want to die. And the thought of it makes you want to throw up, right?

Over time we tend to form this unconscious inner association of treadmill = hell.

Running = slow, painful death.

Running + Treadmill = ridiculously painful death, repeated every day.

That’s not even the problem. The problem is this: as you engage in this emotional, mental behavior day after day, the association grows even stronger.

Treadmill. Death.

Running. Pain.

Treadmill Running. Death. Pain. I hate it. Please no. Stop. Don’t want to do this for ten years.

And over time, the association with these kinds of things becomes almost unconscious and automatic – you can’t even get yourself to step in the same room as anyone in the gym, and you can’t get yourself to strap on the shoes to go running.

So why would you bother doing it?

I mean it makes sense, we don’t like doing things resulting in pain (e.g. getting injured, burning our hands), and want to do more of the stuff that feels good (sex, eating, sleeping, other).

But for the person trying to get healthy, this represents a unique problem – how on earth can you get healthier, if you hate the very behaviors you have to do each day to get healthier?

In the 1920s, a Study Was Published

This study will provide major insight into why you can’t seem to get yourself motivated to exercise, eat healthier, or create healthier habits. And I hope that by the end of this article you’ll really understand why and how you need to change your approach.

In the study, the researcher wanted to actually “create” a phobia in a child. Kinda of messed up, I know.

In any case, he took the boy, “Little Albert” who was about 9 months old, and first gave him a bunch of different emotional tests to ensure that he didn’t have any issues already.

He was exposed to a white rabbit, a rat, a dog, a monkey, burning objects and other items and animals. During this examination he didn’t show any abnormal reactions – he didn’t react to any of them in a fearful manner. He was neutral to them.

Next, he was placed on a table with a white lab rat, and he was allowed to play with it. Again, the child wasn’t afraid, and had no problem playing with his new buddy.

In the experiment, the researcher showed the rat to Little Albert, and then struck a steel pipe with a hammer behind the child’s head, creating a loud nose and causing him to cry.

He did this numerous times and an interesting association appeared. After constantly presenting the rat to the child, and then striking the steel pipe causing the child to cry, anytime little Albert saw the rat (without the sound) he began to instantly cry and move away from the animal.

So he was actually conditioned mentally and emotionally to associate the rat with the horribly loud sound that hurt his ears, even when the researcher didn’t make any noise whatsoever.

The association became this: Rat = loud noise, pain, and crying.

What’s stranger is that he then generalized this response over to other animals and objects as well: when he was shown a dog, a seal-skin coat, and even when the researcher wore a Santa Claus mask with a white beard – he would once again begin crying and try to crawl away from the sound.

Weeks later, when presented with the rat, this strong phobia was still causing an emotional reaction.

This study was a big step forward in understanding how we condition ourselves to respond to, or react to things in a certain way.

Here’s How This Will Help You Create Those Healthy Habits

So how can you actually apply this study to your own life, in order to create habits that stick?

Those of us that struggle to stick with habits often create negative conditioning associated with virtually all the habits we need to engage in to get healthy (walking, eating different foods, going to bed earlier). Here’s how to create a powerful positive conditioning so that you actually look forward to engaging in these habits so you can attain all your goals.

Let’s take a look at how this stuff works with some examples:

Stimulus    ==> Response     ==> Time (Repeated Application)     ==> Mental/Emotional Conditioning

Do You Hate Treadmills?

Treadmill  ==> “I hate this” ==> (Done repeatedly, for months) ==> “I don’t want to ever do this, so I won’t. The idea of treadmills makes me want to die.”

Resulting association: Treadmills = misery.

Do You Hate Boring Healthy Food?

What about eating healthy food?

I constantly hear from people that they hate the monotony of eating boring, tasteless, flavorless health food meals.

Healthy Food ==> “This is so boring and tasteless.” ==> (Done repeatedly, for months) ==> “I hate healthy food because it’s so tasteless, and I don’t even want to try anymore.”

Resulting association: Getting healthy is agonizing because I have to eat crap food.

Do You Hate Walking?

What about just a generic form of exercise and getting the blood going?

Let’s see how a person can create a repetitive negative mental pattern that stops them from engaging in the tiny daily habits.

Walking ==> “This 60 minute walk takes so long.” ==> (Done repeatedly, for months) ==> “Walking isn’t worth it because it takes so much time out of my day.”

Resulting association: Health or weight loss is time intensive, and I can’t afford that time right now.

The solution is that you need to build a positive snowball.

Building Positive Snowballs

We see this with anything… our jobs, our spouses, or our health.

If you have a job that’s constantly stressful, or you have annoying coworkers or a mean boss, after a few months or years you wake up and you are already dreading showing up, right? You’ve conditioned yourself to hate it.

You can feel that pit in your stomach first thing in the morning.

The same can unfortunately happen in a marriage or relationship. You can begin arguing so much or hating each other enough that most of your interactions end up negative.

And then one day, one of the spouses doesn’t want to get out of the car and go into the house – because he/she has been conditioned to constantly associate the partner with stress and anxiety.

Whereas you might have had a positive (wahoo!) 0r neutral (okay, let’s go in) attitude, now you actively dread it.

So how do you change it?

The whole point is this: changing the conditioning in your mind.

This is what I mean when I say that health and habits are primarily a psychological battle.

Bottom line: you want to look forward to the habits that make you successful, right? Because then you’ll do them more.

Firststop engaging in behaviors that constantly leave you feeling negative and unhappy after.

If a 60 minute walk conditions you to hate walking, take 10 minute walks, or do something else.

If you hate going to the gym, stop going to the gym as long, or find another activity you like (zumba? basketball? gardening? volunteering for an environmental clean up crew?).

So the first thing is to pick health habits that are at least somewhat enjoyable.

If the only thing that’s enjoyable right now is talking about your health goals, then just talk about them.

Second slice and dice.

Just go smaller.

One of the biggest barriers to many of us sticking with health goals is the feeling that “I’m just going to fail again anyway, so why bother?” If this sounds like you, by far the most important thing is to set EASY goals (not ambitious ones) to accumulate little wins that’ll keep you inspired and motivated.

If you’re constantly trying out huge goals that you always end up failing at… you’re creating more of a negative association. You’re conditioning yourself to know that you fail each time to try a goal, so why bother trying?

But if you pick an easily achieved goal, you still get that dopamine high of having achieved a goal. So even if you only walk for 60 seconds, from a long term perspective you’re better off having that “high” that builds self esteem, rather than setting a big goal that you obviously didn’t get close to achieving.

Third – make a swap.

Let’s say you’re with your spouse, and a certain activity always generates feelings of unhappiness and resentment for you – maybe your husband never cooks or helps around the home, but when you go out to bowl or have drinks with friends, there’s some aspect of his behavior that you really love.

In this case, to swap the conditioning (“my husband is lazy and boring”), start doing more activities together where he breaks that conditioning. Start doing the activities where he’s interesting, lively, fun. If his chatty, exciting self comes out when you’re at dinner parties – go to more of them – and the conditioning will gradually change.

With your health, swap out everything that makes you beat yourself up.

No more punishing yourself for caving on the sweets.

No more punishing yourself for lack of exercise/walking/cooking.

No more guilt for missing the weight watchers check in, or some kind of group activity.

Walk the dog, and tell yourself you did an awesome job exercising after.

Drink ONE less coffee per day, and give yourself a pat on the back.

The result? A positive snowball.

This is the same principle I use to exercise 4x a week, for almost 10 years now. I’ve conditioned myself to emotionally understand that I feel insanely good afterwards, no matter how terrible or tired I feel before. I look forward to it – and never force myself to go.

I don’t have to convince myself, because I know I’m going to feel great. There’s no internal dialogue or debate, I just go, and feel awesome after. As a result this is easily a habit I’ll maintain for life (unless something changes), because it’s something I look forward to.

You can do the same thing with virtually any habit or pursuit in life – but you have to condition yourself or get over negative conditioning.

The point is not the habit itself – it’s maintaining a enjoyable state of mind. A positive association with the habit.

Otherwise you’re associating all the most important habits (for your success and health) with the hammer being struck behind your head.

All Success Originates in the Mind

Remember: looking and feeling amazing are just the result of changes in your behavior… done daily, compounded over time.

Don’t make it more complex than it needs to be and overwhelm yourself.

The reason why my students and clients get results like this is because I offer a behavioral and psychological approach to health – at the end of the day, most of us know what to do right? it’s just figuring out how on earth to get it done.

Personal development and figuring out how to ingrain new behaviors (and ditch the old ones) is that way.

What about you?

Take a second to leave a comment below and tell me what kinds of “negative conditioning” you’ve made, preventing you from engaging in healthy habits.

– Alex


Have You Read My New Book Yet?

  Read more about this in my book Master The Day. You’ll learn the nine daily success habits I learned interviewing people that lost 100+ pounds and kept it off in a healthy way – by changing their habits. Plus, you’ll get a free $100 bonus video course if you show me your receipt. You can get the audiobook here too.

16 comments… add one

  1. I go to the gym because I should, not because I know I will feel good after (because I don’t feel any different after).
    I also don’t like most of the food that I’m told is healthy for me, mostly because it doesn’t agree with my system.

    1. Hey Alex,

      You write alot about creating habits. How do you go about breaking bad habits (e.g. eating junk food).?

      1. Reply
  2. Great article. Really made me think about how I need to change my way of thinking and stop trying to push myself

    1. Hey Kate –

      Sometimes it’s about doing the RIGHT stuff, and not necessarily more stuff :-).

  3. Just simply, you are amazingly inspirational. Thank you for doing what you do Alex!

    1. Cheers Jenny :-).

  4. Good advice!

    1. Cheers Wanda –

  5. This works. It is also really important for high performers that have not done anything for awhile. I am a 9th degree black belt, was a police officer, mountain bike racer. Illness took me out of training for several years. I have been struggling and hating exercise ever since. after seeing your post on youtube. I have started riding my bicycle 2 miles a day and walking for 10 minutes. I am enjoying my training again. Also good advice for elderly. I am 70 years old and this has given me a completely new outlook on life.

    1. Love it melvin – what have you personally used this kind of thing for besides your recent training?

      1. Really appreciate this post and this comment. I, too, was extremely active, until some emergencies at work took more out of me than I had to give. I’m trying to get back to where I was, but the knowledge that I *could* do this before and *can’t* now cuts me to the quick every time. I keep wanting to do too much too quickly, or else wanting to ignore exercise altogether.

        My game plan to combat these destructive mindsets was to trick myself by doing exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise (hikes, bike to places, random pseudo-yoga poses while I’m waiting for something). My goal was to let myself forget about how weak I am until I’m strong enough that paying attention is fun again. Sometimes it works. But health is hard to ignore, particularly when pseudo-“non-exercising,” and the stigma of weakness and failure just gets more reinforced.

        You know, I’d much rather pay attention during this process–and enjoy it, rather than hate it? So I’m starting by sitting on the floor and stretching, because I haven’t lost all my flexibility and it’s one thing that always feels really good. I think it’s working, too! It almost always makes me want to do an up/downward dog afterwards, followed by a few pushups. Then, later in the day, I’m more likely to stretch and do some more. Slow and steady, right? 😉

        1. Hey Jennifer,

          I’ve found that this “doing exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise” works really really well.

          Let me know how it works for the stretching 🙂

          1. So, I’ve been trying both. Walking and biking places where I can, looking up groupons for things like dance classes–the movement is helping! And the stretching. The stretching actually opened up my eyes to something I didn’t realize was going on, because I was trying not to pay attention to my body–and it’s that some of what’s uncomfortable for me isn’t weakness, but places where my posture has grown terrible or my joints are stiff. Because I was trying to ignore my body as much as possible, I was missing out on the fact that part of the reason that my exercise was so difficult/wasn’t working for me as well as it used to was the fact that I was reinforcing bad behaviors and dysfunctional ranges of motion. Which probably made it worse that I was trying to do too much too quickly.
            You know, stretching’s never been a big deal for me? But it turns out that right now, in the place that I am, it’s essential. Doing both of those together is helping me know how to improve much more healthily and effectively.

  6. I told myself that I will be in more pain after walking / that it is not enjoyable to walk on my own / that I will do it tomorrow (and it never comes). The list goes on. Shame on me

    1. Hey Hanna –

      Haha, it’s only human 🙂 But it’s important that you DID figure out those narratives, because once you know them, you can account for them.


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