How often do you refer to a healthy eating or physical activity choice as something you “should” do? Studies suggest that looking at the choices you make through this lens is more likely to be a barrier when creating healthy habits.
How “Should” Can Be a Barrier
When you think of how your habits could help you achieve your hopes of living with health and vitality, and reducing your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, it’s easy to think of those healthy habits as something you “should” do. Instead, here are some insights from studies on how people change behavior.
Instant gratification over long-term wins. In the moment that you are making a choice – what to choose for a snack, going for a walk versus watching another episode of a show – for most people, immediate gratification wins most of the time.
- Pay attention to the immediate win. Healthy eating and physical activity habits can also provide immediate benefits. Take the time to stop and notice the energy you feel after taking a walk or eating a meal that’s not overloaded with rich foods and includes plenty of vegetables.
Reframe chore versus chance. When you make a choice based on what you think you “should” do, it can feel like you’re playing by somebody else’s rules instead of your own.
- Respect your choice. After you choose an eating habit that you’d like to tweak for better health, look for some ways that it can satisfy both your long-term wish for health and a short-term wish. Some people want to have more energy through the day. Others want to enjoy interesting new flavors in their food, or use money normally spent on packaged snacks and soft drinks to do a fun activity. Use this perspective to change “I should” to “This is my chance to.”
Shrink the Barriers You See
When you think about changing your usual eating habits to better support your health now or in the future, what’s your next thought? It is often, “But…” One or more barriers pop into focus, and that’s enough to decide that making the change would be too much of a challenge.
Here are some common barriers people see when they think about healthy eating and some options for how you could get around them.
Swap perfect for moving forward. Healthy eating doesn’t need to be perfect. Whether for reducing risk of cancer or other chronic diseases, or for having more energy to sustain you throughout the day, each small improvement helps.
- See where you’re starting. What’s a realistic step toward the habits you ultimately want to develop? If you include a vegetable at one meal per day now, when is another opportunity to include one more? If you include a small portion of a vegetable at two meals per day already, how about expanding the variety of choices you eat or choosing more substantial portions? If you currently eat whole grains only a few times per week, what are some new ways you can include them more often?
- See yourself learn and grow. Rather than focus on having every new change be an all-star hit, aim to learn something from each new step. Each time you try something new, take a moment afterwards to consider what new skill you used or what you learned that you’ll consider next time. You learn by experience how long you like different vegetables cooked, what herbs and spices taste best on different whole grains and which bean and lentil dishes appeal to you most.
Look for the win-win as you balance individual preferences. Many women have told me over the years that they were reluctant to make changes in family foods because of concern about how others would respond. None of us wants to prepare food only to be met by a “yuck!” response. But healthy eating doesn’t have to be like that.
- Identify each person’s sticky points. For some people, what makes a food a winner is its flavor and spice (having enough or not having too much). You can adjust new foods to match that flavor profile or have flavorings on the table so everyone can make adjustments to suit their taste preferences. For other people, having some familiar foods in a mixed dish or in the meal is important. And changing only one or two meals each week can feel more comfortable than completely “starting fresh.” For others, knowing they won’t go hungry is important. For them, a plate that looks like AICR’s New American Plate is comfortable, because even with adjustments in food choices and proportions, the plate can still be satisfyingly full.
- Respect perspectives. If your friends and family are likely to jump on board for the goal of healthy eating, you can bolster success by involving them in coming up with ideas to try.
- Consider stealth health. If your family and friends seem unlikely to buy into changing their eating choices, consider how much you can accomplish with small changes. Just because you’ve made a healthier version of a dish doesn’t mean you need to announce, “This is healthy!” Simply boosting vegetables from a tiny garnish to a larger portion, reducing excess meat portions and including beans or switching dessert to something with fruit can each be a building block in a healthy eating pattern
Question your assumptions. Some ideas about healthy eating choices have become so common, that it’s easy to overlook other approaches.
- Watch costs with savvy choices. Don’t rely on expensive foods with healthy-sounding words on package labels. Look for in-season vegetables and fruits in the produce section and check frozen and canned options (without added salt or sugar), since they can be just as healthy and may offer a better buy for choices that aren’t in season. Add your own flavorings to whole grains and beans, rather than paying extra for “seasoned” options. Check this list of ideas for more on making choices that are dollar-wise and health-wise.
- Use short cuts to save time. Double recipes so you have extra for another meal or to freeze for later. Use frozen vegetables to save washing and chopping time, and canned beans like black beans and chickpeas. Start with a prepared pasta sauce and amp up the vegetables.
Create a Personal Priority List
When it comes to lower cancer risk, the AICR recommendations provide a blueprint that highlights the steps you can take that will make the biggest difference. The good news: these are choices that will also support overall good health. And the more good news: these choices can be enjoyable in the here-and-now.