Periods of transition, like the start of a new year, are the perfect time to change old patterns and start building better habits. By replacing a few less healthy habits--like skipping breakfast or eating candy between meals--with healthier choices, you can take steps toward maintaining a healthy weight all year round.

What's so important about taking control of your habits? According to a report from the New York Times, research from Duke University suggests that our habits may be more influential on our everyday choices than our conscious decision-making. The study showed that habits may shape up to 45 percent of our daily choices.

How Do Habits Form?

Have you ever wondered how habits form? Before you can take a proactive approach to changing your habits, it's helpful to understand the psychological process behind habit formation. Charles Duhigg, a journalist for The New York Times and author of the book The Power of Habit, notes that all habits follow a three-part process called the "habit loop." The habit loop involves a "cue," a "routine," and a "reward."

The first step of the habit loop, the cue, is a trigger that instructs your brain to go on automatic pilot. At this point in the process, the part of your brain that normally makes decisions moves to the back burner, and you act out of habit. The second step, the routine, includes all of the actions you take after the cue occurs. None of this would happen without step three: the reward. The reward helps your brain remember the action and want to repeat it in the future.

How to Break an Old Habit

Habits are great when they help you improve your health and manage your weight--for example, by eating balanced meals and exercising. The problem comes when you develop habits like overeating or smoking. If you have habits that you'd like to break in the New Year, it's important to learn the easiest way to make a change.

In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Duhigg made the point that it's within everyone's power to break habits at any time: "What we know from lab studies is that it's never too late to break a habit," Duhigg told NPR. "Habits are malleable throughout your entire life."

Duhigg emphasized that the most effective way to break habits is to understand their structure. He notes that once you make people recognizes the cues and rewards in their own behavior, those habits "becomes much, much easier to change."

To understand Duhigg's point, let's revisit the habit loop with an example. Say that you'd like to break your nightly habit of eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner. The first step is to examine your process, and see if you can figure out what your cue is for this habit. Your cue may be feeling not quite full after dinner, and wanting a sweet to satiate your hunger.

Next, look at your routine around this habit. Your routine might be walking to the freezer, selecting your favorite bowl, and dishing out two scoops of ice cream. Now think about the reward you receive for this habit. Possibly, it's the rush that you get from the sugar high and the sweetness of the dessert. Or, your reward might be something more complex, like the feeling of decadence and luxury you get from enjoying a creamy treat. In order to break this habit, you need to come up with a new cue, routine, and reward.

How to Build a Healthy Habit

According to the Cleveland Clinic, multiple studies have suggested that physicians are healthier and have greater longevity than others. The research shows that doctors' healthy habits are behind their better health outcomes. But while you may know of some behaviors that would help you to maintain a healthy weight, such as eating less sugar and exercising, you may not know how to build these habits.

To understand this better, let's consider our ice cream habit example. You know now that in order to break an old habit and replace it with a healthier one, you need to modify your habit loop. So to replace after-dinner ice cream with a piece of fruit, for example, you need a new cue to trigger a new response.

After you finish dinner, you usually experience the cue of not feeling quite full, and wanting a dessert to top off your meal. One way you might modify this feeling is by eating your meal more slowly, so that you have less of an appetite for dessert. You'll end your meal with a fuller stomach, and this can be your new cue to walk over to the fruit bowl.

Next, make a habit of selecting a piece of fruit and eating it after dinner. As you get used to this new habit, you may find that you get a new reward associated with it: a sweet taste, but without the sugar crash that came from your ice cream habit.

But what if the reward you are craving is a little more complex--like the desire for a luxurious treat? In that case, you may want to choose more decadent fruits, like raspberries or pomegranates.

HealthAhead Hint: Build Healthier Habits This Year

Once you understand the psychology behind habit formation, it becomes much easier to let go of old habits and build healthier ones. Now that you're on the road to better habits, why not make this year your healthiest one yet? Keep checking the HealthAhead Portal regularly for more tips on how you can improve your health and wellbeing, one small habit at a time.