There is no shortage of diet and eating advice out there. Virtually all of it is about what food you should eat. I think most of us know what to do, despite the differing, even conflicting, advice from popular diets.
Instead of what, let’s talk about how. How is much more interesting and challenging anyway. How do you change your behavior? You know what to do, so why aren’t you doing it?
I know that diet advice is often baffling and one diet choice may seem to be vastly different from another. Having too many options makes it harder to pick one. Marketers have realized this. When people have too many choices, they often get overwhelmed and choose nothing. So limit the options. It’s much easier to decide between two things than four or five.
At their core virtual all healthy diets have the same advice. So, in effect, the choices are limited. As Michael Pollan says “eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” And whether you’re low carb, Paleo, ketogenic, vegan or some other strategy Pollan’s advice is still right on.
People are always trying (and frequently failing) to make changes in their behavior and their lives. The beginning of the new year is a particularly common time for this practice- New Year’s resolutions.
A new year feels like a fresh start even though it is entirely arbitrary. Many New Year’s resolutions may be fueled by the excesses of the holiday season. People put off their healthy lifestyle choices during December with the promise that when the new year comes everything will be different.
Change is always easier to think about when it starts tomorrow.
Sadly very few New Year’s resolutions are successful. I have seen numerous statistics about this but according to US News and World Report, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the middle of February. Only 20% of people are still at their new behavior after six weeks. And even more fall off as time goes by.
Why is that? Why do so many people attempt to make changes to their lives and yet so few succeed?
As a physician, this is something I often consider. The compliance rate with even simple tasks such as a daily medication is poor. Ten years ago, I read something in the local newspaper which stated most common medical problems like high blood pressure or high cholesterol could be treated with lifestyle- diet, exercise, stress reduction- instead of medication. At the time I remember thinking I know that but most people would prefer to take a pill than do the hard work that behavior change requires.
Frequently, people won’t even do that. If you can’t get people to do something as simple as taking a daily medication how are you ever going to get people to do something that is actually hard like behavior change.
There are likely numerous reasons for the paltry success rate when it comes to behavior change, but a few stand out. Number one, because it’s hard and it takes time. There is no quick, easy fix. We are always looking for a magic bullet, an easy way out, get it done without any effort. Real change requires time and effort.
Number two, you don’t have a specific goal or plan. People are always looking to lose weight, get fit, or eat healthier. The goal is so vague there is no way to quantify success, it’s harder to formulate a plan without a specific goal to plan for, and without a plan, you’re doomed.
Number three, your only plan is to depend on willpower.
Willpower is not a plan.
It will run out sooner or later.
People fail because they only have a vague idea of what they want to achieve- lose weight. No defined goal to get a win when they reach it and no specific plan for what to do when the going gets tough. So when the going gets tough, it’s over.
It’s about habits, not willpower. Create a system for yourself that supports your desired behavior so much so that it becomes automatic.
So what can you do to improve your success rate?
Look at yourself and your current behavior. Understand why you do the things you do now. This includes both some understanding of your baseline tendency- how you respond to expectations as well as what is happening with each behavior. And that means data. I love data.
But first, define a goal. A specific goal. Lose five pounds this month. Or exercise three times a week for the next six weeks. Or eat at least five servings of vegetables a day for a month.
Just eating more vegetables can be a successful approach to weight loss. As I’m sure you know, vegetables are nutrient and fiber dense while being calorie light. When you fill up on vegetables, you are giving your body all that good nutrition and fiber with fewer calories. You will inevitably end up eating less calorie dense foods.
Start collecting data on your goal. For diet or eating habits that means a food diary or journal. I know. I know. You don’t want to do it. You’ve heard it before. But it works. Multiple studies have confirmed people are more likely to succeed in losing weight when they record what they eat. So just get over not wanting to and do it. You will already be more likely to succeed. For more on the food, diary click here.
Once you know what you are doing now, you can think about how to make changes. Small changes. If your goal is to eat five serving of vegetables daily, determine how many you eat now. Start by adding one serving to one meal. When you succeed with that small goal, you can celebrate a win and start slowly scaling up.
BJ Fogg who has an outstanding TED talk and a method for behavior change called tiny habits. He recommends adding a desired behavior to something you already do. For him, he wanted to do more push-ups every day. Every time he peed he would do two push-ups. When he succeeded, he would make sure to celebrate. Once he was easily accomplishing two, he went up to five push-ups. Now he does at least eight, and usually 10-12, but will celebrate when he does eight. As a result, he does 60-70 push-ups/day.
Charles Duhigg, a reporter for the New York Times and a bestselling author of the book, The Power of Habit, describes using the habit loop to change his own behavior successfully. All habits follow a pattern, known as the habit loop, which is trigger→ behavior→ reward. Duhigg realized he had gained some weight and decided it was time to take it off. He knew his habit of getting a cookie every afternoon should be the first thing to go. So he wrote himself sticky notes- NO COOKIE.
He told himself not to do it. He berated himself when he ended up doing it anyway. But he still ended up doing it. So he started dissecting his behavior. After carefully considering what was truly going on and testing several theories he realized it was not about the cookie at all, instead what he genuinely wanted was to socialize. So rather than getting up every afternoon to get a cookie, he would get up and find someone to socialize with. After a few months, he no longer thought about the cookie.
You’ve all probably heard the saying the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you don’t change the way you approach your goals, you will be no more likely to succeed than in the past.
Behavior change is hard.
And just willing yourself to do something rarely works. With thoughtful consideration of your behaviors, your triggers, and your rewards you can help yourself understand why you do the things you do. This will then allow you to make changes. It’s still hard, and it definitely takes time. But by working with yourself, understanding your needs and desires, instead of just willing it to happen, change becomes possible.
Did you start the year with a New Year’s Resolution? Are you still at it? If not why? Did you have a specific goal?