Originally written for The Washington Post, July 27th, 2017
I’ve accepted that many people don’t want to meet with a dietitian. It’s assumed that we’re going to suggest eating bland, healthy, nutritious food, and avoiding all the tasty treats. Quite frankly, sometimes a version of that is true, causing a vicious cycle to occur. Clients are annoyed that they must give up the fun foods, and every follow-up appointment is a discussion about how they feel deprived and can’t imagine another day without their drinks, sweets and fries.
This pattern leads to stress. People judge food as “good” and “bad,” are overwhelmed about food choices, feel frustrated that they can’t eat treats and sweets, and feel guilty when they eat something they’re not “supposed” to. Everything about food, nutrition and health becomes stressful and unpleasant.
It’s a tricky situation because dietitians truly don’t want people to excessively eat sweets, fried foods and other goodies or drink too much alcohol or sweetened beverages. We want to support individuals in creating long-term behavior change and enjoying the experience. Typically, if people think they’re on a diet, it rarely sticks for the long term.
To achieve the goal of nutrition, behavior change requires a shift in perspective.
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk, “How to make stress your friend,” sheds light on how one’s perception of stress can be a game changer in creating sustainable behavior change.
She highlights a study in which researchers took close to 30,000 names from the 1998 National Health Interview Survey and looked at how they answered questions related to their stress levels, their perception of stress, and whether they try to reduce their stress. The researchers then used public health records to compare that information with mortality data through 2006. One finding was that neither amount of stress nor perception of stress alone was associated with a higher risk of death. But both of those factors together — reporting a lot of stress and believing stress has a large effect on health — did increase that risk.
Another study she describes is one in which participants were put in stressful situations and monitored on their physical response. One group was taught in advance to look at stress as positive. For example, they learned that an adrenaline rush helps them perform better. That group experienced fewer negative physical response symptoms. Their perception of stress decreased their internal stress response.
How can this support you in creating new nutrition habits?
Here are some common stressful and unpleasant thoughts one can have while starting a healthy eating plan:
•“I hate being so restricted. How am I going to survive without my favorite food?”
•“I’m not going to be able to have a social life! How am I going to fit in during social situations? What am I going to eat at that party?”
•“I hate this. Why do I have to struggle like this? Why does this have to be so difficult?”
•“This is terrible. I hate vegetables, eating healthy and eating like this. This is never going to work.”
•“I’m hungry, I’m tired, I can’t keep a thought. Eating like this feels uncomfortable.”
What if you looked at the experience differently? What if you embraced the difficulty of changing your lifestyle and had pleasant thoughts about the new healthy body you could have? What if the stress of it all didn’t have to feel so difficult? It’s stressful, but that may not be a bad thing.
Some examples to strategize this new perspective:
•Set a pleasant tone. You’re sitting down for lunch and it’s a meal in line with your new healthy lifestyle. The plate is full of vegetables, healthy fats, protein and fiber, and you say to yourself, “This is going to make me feel energized, lean and healthy!”
•Enjoy some treats. When people start eating healthy, they often go all out and eliminate all their favorite foods, leading to deprivation and stress. Enjoy a treat from time to time. Keep it in appropriate proportion and enjoy once or twice a week.
•Remember to take a breath. When you’re walking into a social situation and aren’t sure how to eat, stop for just a moment and take a breath. Take a few breaths if you need to. Find people you enjoy spending time with so you can laugh and have a good conversation. Make the best decisions you can and enjoy the night.
•Create tools for success. Often when people go on diets, they undereat and get so hungry they feel physically and emotionally stressed. Caloric deprivation isn’t necessary. Load up on vegetables, healthy fats, fiber-rich starches, proteins, fiber. Have food prepped and planned so you’re always prepared. Stay consistent with your meal timing to keep you full and satisfied through the day.
Eating better can be quite pleasant. Learning how to view the process to your advantage not only supports you in reaching your goals, but makes the experience so much more enjoyable. McGonigal says, “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.” Consider eating healthier as a brave act.