We have all been there, wanting to help improve the dietary habits of those we care about, but not quite knowing exactly how to go about it. Whether it is a spouse, friend, or family member there is no easy way to influence change. Everyone is unique and at different levels of readiness to change their dietary habits. This posting will kick off a two part series that will explore the ways in which you can influence someone close to you to eat healthier. I will start by sharing some insight into how I was able to succesfully influence the dietary habits of my family members.
I first started taking a genuine interest in healthy eating in the later years of high school and ultimately went on a fascinating personal journey from eating quite poorly to eating quite well. As I started to fully comprehend the positive effect my changes were having on my own health and wellbeing, I realized that I wanted my family members to share in those benefits. I began to eat and prepare foods differently and they gradually followed suit. With time and my positive encouragement, they grew to partially adopt many of my healthy eating habits. Based on this experience, in combination with my education in behaviour change theory, I have devised a general list of approaches that will support you in your endeavours to encourage positive dietary changes in those close to you.
1) Lead by Example: Humans learn by observation, and although this is no guarantee of success, practicing what you preach will go a long way to help your cause. It will be more difficult for an individual to learn and understand the processes and benefits of healthy eating if they are not able to witness them first hand.
2) Identify their readiness to change: Everyone is at a different level of readiness to change their eating behaviours. Depending on that level , certain approaches will be more succesful than others. For example, trying to teach healthy recipes and cooking techniques to someone who has absolutely no interest in eating healthier will probably not be an effective approach. A person at that stage would benefit more from a gentle non-intrusive introduction to all the positives associated with eating well. Readiness to change is a complex and particularly important topic which I will revisit in much greater detail on next week’s blog posting.
3) Start small: Improving eating habits is a life-long endeavour, so do not expect a health food revolution in the first week. Set small goals and introduce changes slowly and gradually. Cherish and reward small victories, such as trying a new fruit or vegetable. Eating “poorly” once in a while should not be seen as a defeat or failure especially if the trend is generally positive and improving.
4) Work with what they like: It will help a great deal if you have a strong understanding of the individual’s eating habits, including likes and dislikes. A potentially unappealing food item may become more appealing if prepared in a certain way or when accompanied by another more recognizable food. If you know a person well enough that there are certain foods they would probably never be open to trying, it may be counterproductive to force those foods on them as part of your encouragement process.
5) Be persistent but not excessive: Be persistent enough to show the person you are genuine and committed to helping them improve the way they eat, but do not allow this persistence to become potentially damaging to your relationship. Know when to push and probe and when to take a step back. People who are especially resistant to eating differently may be defensive and being overly aggressive could jeopardize the long-term success of your efforts.
6) Let them know what it means to you: Having a meaningful external force pushing someone to eat better can certainly help to facilitate behaviour change. It is important the person who you are trying to help understands how much it means to you that they eat better. It will also help to express to them your concern over the potential negative effects of their current eating habits.
7) Make it relevant to them: A reknowned behaviour change theory says that a person will be more likely to adopt a behaviour if they percieve it is of benefit to them. Let the person know exactly how the particular food you are suggesting can directly benefit their health, and why that health benefit has special significance to them in particular. This will help them to see healthy eating in a good light and contribute to improving their attitude towards healthy food, which will go a long way to help them succeed. An excellent example of this is encouraging an individual with a family history of heart disease to eat avocado, which is known to contain heart healthy monounsaturated fats. Because monounsaturated fats are directly related to the individuals disease history, foods that contain them are now of special signifance to that individual.
8) Encourage them: One’s belief in their own ability to succeed is an important part of behaviour change. It will be helpful to support this person and enhance their own belief in their ability to make the change succesfully. Let them know you believe in their ability to change. This will work better for an individual who is actively trying to change, rather than someone with no interest in doing so. While encouragement alone is no guarantee of success, discouragement can have serious negative effects, so keep it positive.
9) Teach them skills and strategies for success: You are acting as external source of motivation and education, but it is important the individual feels in control of their own behaviour. They will need to carry out healthy eating behaviours without your presence and thus providing skills, strategies and resources to faciliate healthy eating could help improve their sense of control over their eating habits.
It is important to remember that the success of these techniques will vary based on the individual’s attitudes towards healthy eating and their readiness to change their current eating behaviours ( as per point #2). Their readiness to change in particular could have significant effects on the success of these various techniques. It is for this reason I will be revisiting that concept in more depth in my next post. With that being said, I hope that hearing my success story will motivate you and that applying my guidance will aid you in your journey to improving the eating habits of those you care about. It is a pragmatic and worthy endeavour to try to help those you care about eat better, especially considering all of the positive implications a good diet can have on their health and longevity. I sincerely wish you the best of luck in your attempts.
Until next time, Eat Up!
Andy the RD