When I was younger I was able to be active and maintain a reasonably healthy diet with little difficulty. I used to think, “Why is this so hard for people?” Now I know better. Increasing job demands, children, financial pressures, family health adversity, and this coming from someone who knows he’s been given a pretty fortunate lot in life. Throw in a toxic food environment and sometimes I’m surprised that anyone is able to navigate life and maintain consistent, healthy eating and exercise habits. The odds are certainly stacked against us.

Starting healthy habits, especially with guidance from a professional, seems to be manageable for most people. In fact, most individuals who start a weight loss program, for example, will reduce the number of calories they eat, become more active, and ultimately lose a decent amount of weight, if not a substantial amount. The problem, of course, is these healthy habits often don’t stick. New research may provide some clues as to why.

A recent study by researchers from the University of Ottawa looked at the eating habits of adults with cardiovascular disease (CVD) by following them for a year after they experienced a major cardiac incident. Given how serious CVD incidents are, we can assume all the participants were motivated to eat a healthy diet. The researchers found, however, that individuals who reported being motivated more by intrinsic factors also had a better quality diet after 1 year. Intrinsic motivation is when you do things because you derive personal satisfaction out of them and see yourself as engaging in behavior that is of value to you, as opposed to being focused on obtaining external rewards or avoiding unpleasant consequences.

Another study looked at the eating habits of adolescents over the course of a year. It found that adolescents who reported having both a strong sense of meaning in their life, and also a drive to continue pursuing meaning in their life, also had a healthier diet and exercised more. Although this study was done with adolescents, it is consistent with findings in adult studies that have shown that personal meaning is related to healthy behavior.

I think there is plenty we can learn from the kids here, especially in the context of the adult study. If you want to change your eating and activity habits in the short-term, you can do that pretty well by simply setting goals, following guidelines, and focusing on staving off disease or fitting into new clothes. However, if you really want to change your lifestyle for good, you might need a bit more than that. You may need to examine exactly how a healthy lifestyle brings meaning to your life. How does healthy living empower your life? What does it allow you to do that of intrinsic value to you?

If the answers don’t come easily, you can use the “and then, what?” method. Lets say you want to eat healthier to feel better about yourself. OK, that’s not a bad reason…and then what? Imagine you feel better about yourself. What will you now do that you weren’t doing before with this newfound self-satisfaction? Will you engage in activities with friends, like hiking and dancing? Will you spend more time with grandchildren? Will you initiate intimacy with your partner? These are the kinds of intrinsically motivating things that can bring personal meaning to your eating and exercise habits. And research would suggest that by pursuing these things now, as opposed to waiting to be healthier or lose weight, you would actually empower your ability to live a healthier lifestyle.

You can foster and even practice this. For example, you can devote ten minutes, about 3-4 times per week, to writing about your values and what’s deeply important to you. Writing is an incredibly powerful intervention on it’s own and it will help you stay in contact with the bigger picture. Another thing you can do is make each eating choice a vote on your values. Practice taking a pause and noting whether food choices are a vote “for” your values or “against.” The same can be done with activity choices (e.g. TV vs. walking or an activity with loved ones). The goal isn’t to punish or criticize yourself for making an unhealthy choice, that will continue to happen, but rather the idea is to bring what is truly important and meaningful to you into your everyday awareness. Doing so might help you make healthier choices a little more than you currently do.

Life is difficult and we have a strong pull to seek comfort through eating and passive recreation. Taking some time to foster a connection to a sense of meaning and purpose could go a long way to navigating a path of healthier living. 

Dr. Jason Lillis is author of The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle available on Amazon and where all books are sold.

Source Articles:

1. The role of motivation and the regulation of eating on the physical and psychological health of patients with cardiovascular disease. Guertin et al (2015). Journal of Health Psychology

2. A reason to stay healthy: The role of meaning in life in relation to physical activity and healthy eating among adolescents. Brassai et al (2015). Journal of Health Psychology. 

About the Author

Jason Lillis Ph.D.

Jason Lillis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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