Why it’s so hard for us to change our diets and what to do about it

We have all felt it and we all dislike it; that annoyingly negative, instinctual feeling that immediately appears when it’s suggested we should stop doing what we’re doing and do something else instead. In particular, this is true for situations where the way we eat is being challenged. “You want me to stop eating pasta, eliminate sugar from my diet, and worst of all, to start eating vegetables? I’ll tell you one thing mister nutrition expert: That’s NEVER going to happen!”.

Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

Giving up something feels terrible whilst doing something new feeds uncertainty

The scientific literature on why humans generally don’t like change is vast and applicable to why we struggle with changing our diets. Based on my experience in leadership development and nutritional coaching, I believe there are primarily two reasons to why we react so strongly to changing what we eat:

  1. It’s easy for us to imagine how terrible it will feel like to stop eating something we love
  2. It’s difficult for us to imagine how great we will feel when we replace certain foods

There are certainly a lot of other reasons that impact our ability to change. However, I believe that if we fix the abovementioned two that will be enough for most people to make a dietary change. For the ones of you who want more detail on human change I suggest reading “Leading Change” as a start even though this book is written from a business, not a health, perspective.

Use the 80/20 rule and self experiment

In order to reduce the impact of the two abovementioned challenges I could recommend lots of actions. I won’t however, as I believe most of us only need to do two things to succeed making a dietary change:

  1. Use the 80/20 rule: Reduce negative emotions related to dietary change by understanding that healthy eating means you also can eat foods that aren’t particularly healthy, for example, pizza, ice cream, or candy, just not all the time.
  2. Self experiment: Create some positive emotions about dietary change by “tricking” your body into making a 2-week eating experiment.

 

Use the 80/20 rule

In order to reduce negative emotions we have to stop listening to extreme statements about what we can and cannot eat. The people who tell us we should never eat pizza/pasta/ice cream etc. are clueless. Eating foods such as the above every now and then isn’t going to do us much harm, quite the opposite*. If we feel great about being able to eat pizza/pasta/ice cream every now and then that in itself is important to our health (even though these foods are generally not part of a healthy diet). There is more to health than nutrition and having enjoyment in life is a great example of that. Unfortunately, most nutritional experts tend to focus on nutrition only and thereby discouraging people from making positive change. Personally, I strongly recommend using the 80/20 rule with regards to eating. Implement good eating habits 80% of the time and thoroughly enjoy it when you decide to eat something that might not be optimal nutritionally (that’s the 20%).

Carry out a 2-week eating experiment

We are never going to be fully motivated to change what we eat before we are confident that the changes we make will have a positive impact. It might help to speak to someone we know and trust that has already changed how they eat. However, they might not actually know what they’re talking about and additionally what works for them might not necessarily work for us. Consequently, I recommend “tricking yourself” into doing a very small self experiment where you eat healthy during a 2-week period and simultaneously pay attention to how different you feel. If telling yourself “when I’m done with the two weeks I’m going to eat cake every day for a month!” makes you feel better, by all means, say that. The whole point here is that most people experience significant positive effects once the body starts to adapt to the new way of eating and consequently most people will be motivated to continue the change. I believe this will happen to you too but don’t believe me, just try this very small 2-week eating experiment for yourself.

Summary

It’s not easy to change what we eat. The main challenges are that:

  • it’s easy for us to imagine how terrible it will feel like to stop eating something we love
  • it’s difficult for us to imagine how great we will feel when we replace certain foods

However, there’s no need to be discouraged as we can address these challenges by:

  • Learning what healthy eating represents (following this blog is a great way of achieving that)
  • Using the 80/20 rule to eating (don’t worry unnecessarily)
  • Self experimenting (try eating healthy and see how you feel)

Next up I will outline how to carry out the 2-week healthy eating experiment. Give it a try and take it from there! You’ll love it.

Acknowledgments

A while back I read an absolutely superb book, “The Biology of Belief”, by Bruce Lipton. Even though I’m still a skeptic to some of the things he says I really believe in his main argument: Having positive conscious and subconscious beliefs significantly improves our chance of succeeding in life. I will be writing lots about this and other self-understanding topics later, however I thought it was fitting to mention Bruce in this post as it’s about making a change.

If you want to read his brilliant book, check out this link. If not, just remember that really believing you can do something significantly impacts your chances of success.

Regards from Sri Lanka!

In this post I borrowed:

* For people with certain food allergies and diseases this doesn’t necessarily hold true but it does for the vast majority of people out there.

4 thoughts on “Why it’s so hard for us to change our diets and what to do about it

  1. Ismael Juma

    You focused on how people feel about changing their diet (which is important) and the advice given seems reasonable.

    However, some of us have no problems with that. My main problem is that it’s not as convenient to eat different. You have to spend more time preparing your own meals and the choices one has when out and about are more restricted. Probably a good topic for a future blog post.

    Best,
    Ismael

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Ismael, your’re making a good point. It certainly is more convenient to pick up something at 7-Eleven or a place like that than it is making food at home and yes, the choices one has when eating out are more restricted (however being restricted is not the main challenge in my opinion). These two points have been some of the main concerns I personally have had. However, once people get familiar with what they can eat on a diet that is higher in fat and low in processed foods, grains, and legumes, most feel that eating this way doesn’t only feel great but can be quick and simple too. A few examples of some very simple dishes are cheese & nuts, egg & bacon, vegetable & coconut juice, creame & berries etc but yeah, they do involve at least some preperation. With regards to eating out the issue for me is that I know lots of restaurants use sugar and dangerous vegetable & seed oils to make the food and I generally try to avoid eating stuff like that. I’ll think of how I can make a post about this.

      Reply
  2. Csaba

    Hey,Bjarte that was a good one. It makes me feel good about having a big ice cream just in a few minutes, because I can’t stop thinking about it :-)
    They use fresh , seasonal fruits (watermelon, peach for example) though and birch sugar, which is the healthiest alternative of sugar, as far as I know.
    Anyway, I will try that 2 week “eating experiment” (you just refuse to call it a diet, dont you?) when you come back with some specifics.
    Take care

    Csaba

    Reply
    1. Bjarte Bakke

      Csaba, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I do think it’s important to eat healthy most of the time. However, I think it’s crucial to eat things that aren’t very healthy too sometimes if that makes you happy as there’s so much more to health & life than just optimal nutrition.

      I’m getting abused from all over for not having published the 2-week eating experiment yet! It will have four parts though and it needs to be right. Hoping to have it done this week.

      Reply

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