If you want to learn about healthy eating, you can find mountains of information on the web, smart phone apps, at the book store, etc. The same goes for any health behavior such as physical activity, smoking cessation, or stress management. There’s a lot of good research-based information and advice and lots of bad as well. Organizations such as CDC, Land-grant universities, non-profits, have unbiased research-based information and resources.
Most of us probably know that we should be eating more fruits and vegetables, less junk food, exercising more and sleeping longer so why is it hard to change our habits? What behavioral scientists tell us is that knowledge isn’t predictive of what we do or don’t do. Knowledge is important but there are many other factors that influence our behaviors. Personal factors such as our self-confidence or self-efficacy to undertake a behavior is critical as are the expectations or beliefs about behavior. For example, I’m trying to eat less processed meats because they are associated with certain cancers. In addition to having this knowledge, I’m also pretty confident that I can identify processed meats and can make healthy substitutes. So why am I still eating gobs of lunchmeat, peperoni on pizza, beef jerky, hot dogs, and brats, and not to mention fast food?
In addition to personal factors, our behaviors are also influenced by our social networks, situations, environments including workplaces and communities, and ultimately policies. Regarding processed meat, it’s everywhere including stores, restaurants, and at parties. Furthermore, it’s really easy to prepare since I don’t have to cook it, or at least for very long and in many cases it’s just served to me at restaurants. So in other words, even though I have the knowledge, beliefs, and self-confidence, the cards are still stacked against me because of the situations or environments where my behavior takes place. I should have the will power to overcome these challenges or perhaps not. Perhaps the “horse” driving my “cart” is not a very strong one. The “horse” refers to the reward expectation of the behavior. Rational humans do things and do things repeatedly because they expect to be rewarded in some way. Unfortunately, biology rewards behaviors that are detrimental over time to our well-being. Sugary fatty foods taste good, as do salty processed meats. In addition to taste, convenient behaviors are rewarding because we spend less energy and experience less discomfort. It’s easy (rewarding) to succumb to the forces of gravity and be a couch potato, or to eat out. In order to overcome these forces, we really need to think about what we value. The reward of “doing” must be much more compelling than the reward of “not doing,” especially in context of situations and environments in which we find ourselves. Long range reward expectations regarding health behaviors are important, because they often catalyze behavior change in the first place and keep us going over time. Most people take about 6 months to form a habit and move back and forth through through “stages of change.” However, immediate reward expectations get us through tempting day to day situations. I saw my mom fight colon cancer and how terrible the surgery and treatment were. As compelling as the long range reward to avoid that, is it enough for me to buy something besides beef jerky at the convenience store when I have a salt craving? Probably not, but it will cross my mind. However, the expectation of a short-term reward that nuts will taste just as good might be what tips the scale and gets me out of the convenience store without the beef jerky in hand!
When we set out to change a behavior, we really need to take time and think about these rewards. Short and long-term reward expectations can be things that aren’t even health related but important to us in some way. Short-term reward expectations for healthy eating might include having energy, feeling satisfied with a healthier substitute, not feeling bloated, feeling strong, and alert. Long term rewards could include seeing a grandchild graduate from college, being able to go on vacations, go on long hikes, being a role model, etc. Furthermore, you might want to think even deeper or what is the “reward” behind the reward. Why would long hikes be important for example? Hikes could be spiritually rewarding to be connected with nature.
When changing a behavior we should set S.M.A.R.T. goals– realistic, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. These should be written down. We should also write down short and long-term rewards and why they are important. They can be anything that is valued- either material (ex. a movie at the end the week if the reward is achieved) or understood (I will feel more energetic). Reflect often about rewards, and ask “what’s really driving my behaviors.” We may need to change rewards as we achieve goals or as our values change depending on our stage of life. We must really take time and think about “the horse”, because the horse is going to pull the cart through the difficult situations!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/
Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American psychologist, 44(9), 1175
Ohioline Factsheet HYG5587. Processed Meats, Red Meats and Colorectal Cancer Risk. Accessed at http://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/hyg-5587
A Healthier Michigan. (2017). How to set SMART Goals for Health. Accessed at https://www.ahealthiermichigan.org/2011/01/12/how-to-get-smart-about-goal-setting/
Author: Dan Remley, Field Specialist, Food, Nutrition, and Wellness, O.S.U. Extension
Reviewer: Shannon Carter, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, O.S.U. Extension, Fairfield County