A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology this month reports 45% of Americans usually make resolutions, with another 17% infrequently engaging in the practice. Three of the top 10 resolutions for 2014 involve health and fitness, while 38% of resolutions specifically target weight. No wonder the fitness and weight loss industry bombards us with New Year invitations to improve health, get fit, or lose weight. The annual onslaught is predictable and too often ineffective–except to bump up the bottom line of commercial gyms, diet programs and other fitness industries.
AN ENDLESS LOOP OF FRESH STARTS
Internet searches for the word “diet” surge 82% after New Year’s Eve, the traditional end of the eating season. We hardly need research to tell us that January 1 presents a prime opportunity for “The Fresh Start Effect”. But despite all the interest in self improvement, surveys reveal that only 8% of Americans achieve their resolution. With so many diets and programs promising the moon, it is easy to seduce ourselves. This time it will work! This time it will be different! Too many Americans seem to be stuck in an endless loop of the fresh start effect.
The hard truth remains: behavior change requires more than making a resolution. Acknowledging you want to change is an important first step, but it usually isn’t enough. Effective change requires ability, readiness and willingness to change–very different efforts than wishful thinking. Change is also more likely when the goal is truly attainable and worth all the effort. Too many people chase an unrealistic goal–whether we are speaking of individual endeavors or efforts on behalf of the entire community. Too often stated goals encompass more than we can realistically manage, something akin to changing the world.
TOP FIVE PHRASES TO FORGET
To support more effective change, we need to change our language, replacing “sound bite” nutrition talk with meaningful messages. How we speak about the condition we want to change frames our response. We need to speak to goals that actually make a difference. I proposed getting rid of a few key phrases that distort the challenges we face and keep us repeating the same mistakes of the past. Here are the first five to go:
1. Eat right — as if there were one right way. Yet, again today a debate on the merits of low fat versus a higher fat Mediterranean diet garnered attention in the LA Times. Why do otherwise intelligent people insist there is only one right way to eat? Will we see better results if consumers are encouraged to figure out an approach to food that works for them?
2. Lose Weight–The scale remains a very crude tool. There is no capacity to distinguish between body fat and lean body mass (muscle and everything else). Medicine and public health authorities need to stop being so lazy. The scale is cheap, easy to use, and a poor surrogate measure for health. We need to shift focus to more accurate bio-markers that measure metabolic health.
3. Exercise more, Eat less– The calorie balance hypothesis unravels in the face of more sophisticated research. While you can usually manipulate calories to lose weight, there is a reason most people gain it back. I see more impact when people learn to work with their body instead of just trying to manipulate the numbers. Most of my clients see much more success as they learn how to honor the range of mechanisms that influence appetite and satiety. Metabolic hormones, gut microbes, brain and gut peptides, fitness level, and a host of other factors play into the mix.
4. Just cut out _______ (fill in the blank). In the world of sound bite nutrition, the simple directive to focus on just one thing seduces the masses. The message reinforces wishful thinking that pretends there is only one thing to do. So seductive! We have little to show for all the effort to cut out fat, sugar, fried food, fast food, white food, or any other single entity. Learning to eat well requires more time and attention to what works for any one person. Every health care practitioner and every source of media could benefit from some serious soul searching. Is their message part of the solution or part of the problem?
5. Obesity Epidemic–The American Medical Association’s decision to identify obesity as a disease confuses the issue. For most people the real cause of disease is poor metabolic health. That occurs for thin and thick alike. Terms like the obesity epidemic neglect to address the full scope of the problem while blaming and shaming people of size. We need a profound cultural shift that more honestly assesses health risk. Being thin and sporting a low BMI (body mass index) is not the same thing as being healthy.