Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
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Do you feel powerless when it comes to implementing healthier food habits? A lot of people spend energy trying to resist the appeal of their favorite treats, only to find themselves depleted, defeated, and chewing away on the forbidden temptations before the day is done. After the temporary satisfaction has vanished, they feel guilty and resolve once again that this was their last lapse… until the next one.
If your relationship with food looks something like this example, my article will give you empowerment.
You see, people who want to improve their eating habits tend to focus on their weaknesses. They keep repeating to themselves “I know I shouldn’t have X (make it your preferred guilt-inducing food: chocolate, chips, fries, bacon), but it would taste soooo goood! And I work so hard. I need and deserve a treat.” And so the cycle of fleeting pleasure, remorse, and short-lived determination repeats itself.
Try New Strategies
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same behaviors over and over while expecting different outcomes. So if obsessing over your food habits has led you to no avail in the past, don’t expect it to be a fruitful endeavor moving forward.
Us positive psychology aficionados already know that focusing on weaknesses only goes so far. That’s why my health promotion model suggests the exact opposite. Rather than count on your already over-solicited mental energy and your soon-exhausted self-regulation, why not try another strategy? Here are my two favorites:
- Physical activity: Rather than give in to that brownie, put on your sneakers and go for a walk. Angela Duckworth’s research shows that people who can best resist temptations are those who divert their attention. Brain scans also show that when a tempting stimulus is not available, our brain activity related to it diminishes considerably, hence making it easier to resist (Kessler, 2009). Out of sight, out of mind? Equally important, according to change expert James Prochaska, a lot of our dysfunctional behaviors are expressions of physical urges. Learning to shift these urges from need for comfort food to cues for exercise is a winning strategy. According to him, “There is no more beneficial substitute for problem behaviors than exercise.” Certainly worth a shot!
- Emotional response: Learn to look at that slice of pizza differently. Rather than see the comforting flavors, envision its sodium content creating micro-lesions in your arterial walls. Then picture its cholesterol coming in to fill in these micro-lesions, and leaving fatty deposits behind. Take 30 seconds to feel the rising blood pressure that will ensue, and that sweaty and out-of-breath feeling that you might experience just trying to walk up a flight of stairs over a lifetime of such not-so-commendable habits. Yuck! Change your emotional response to the foods that are hard-to-resist for you and their appeal will diminish considerably.
Save Your Mental Energy
Next time you want to avoid a certain food, preserve your mental energy for what really deserves it. By going for a walk or changing your emotional response to the foods you want to rid your life of, you will free yourself from the temptation painlessly. You will also preserve your self-regulatory power for other demands that are sure to come your way during the day!
Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of personality, 74(6), 1773-1801.
Duckworth, A. (2007). Lecture for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology students, University of Pennsylvania.
Kessler, D. (2009). The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale.
Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.
Roizen, M. F. & Oz, M. C. (2005). YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger. New York: HarperCollins.
Somer, E. (1999). Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best, Second Edition, Second Edition. New York: Holt Paperbacks