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Why can’t I change my health habits? Print

calgary_HeraldWhat to do when you are stuck at stop.

Earlier this year I attended a conference by Dr. Michael Vallis, registered psychologist and leader of the Behaviour Change Institute, who opened his session with the bold statement, “Healthy behaviour is abnormal behaviour.”

I was struck by the raw truth of this statement since to be a healthy weight is statistically abnormal given that more than 60 per cent of Canadians are overweight or obese. If you are currently eating well and exercising you are strangely abnormal.

Barriers to change

health habitsOur environment makes it easy and normal to eat junk food and maintain a sedentary lifestyle. It may sound easy and normal to eat enough vegetables each day, cut back on sugar and eat less greasy fast-food, but struggling to make change is actually indeed what is normal.

Part of the reason change is hard is because of the pleasure principle, which states that we are wired to approach pleasure and repel pain. If eating a healthy breakfast and packing your lunch for work means you need to get up a half hour earlier, this is likely to be painful while sleeping in is pleasurable. If the choice is a chocolate bar or a bag of chips versus raw veggies as a snack, again the pleasure principle makes it hard to choose the healthier option.

Change is also hard because we follow the path of least resistance. Modern technology and our time-starved, rushed lives make it hard for us to want to take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to run errands instead of driving and cook a healthy meal from scratch instead of going to a drive through.

Nutrition change is also incredibly hard since we eat for so many reasons, not just biologic hunger. Food and eating patterns change based on our environment, emotions, stress level, social situation, family ritual and income level.

We are also wired as humans to consider short-term gain over long-term consequences. The immediate gratification of an extra portion at supper or devouring sweet or savoury snacks in the evening, often trumps considerations about risk of diabetes or heart disease.

Moving towards change

If you have struggled to make changes to your lifestyle or eating habits you are not alone. Your ability to change is based on distress tolerance or being able to push through discomfort and all of the above barriers. You may find working through the following readiness questions with a psychologist or health professional trained in motivational interviewing helpful:

Determine readiness

Step 1 – answer YES or NO (another word for no is “NOT YES”)

    Do you view X as a problem?
    Does X concern you or cause distress?
    Are you interested in changing?
    Are you ready to change now?

Unless you say YES to ALL OF THE ABOVE don’t expect change to happen easily. If the answer is NO don’t worry! Work towards change by overcoming barriers.

Step 2

    Why do you want to change?
    How hard are you willing to work to change?
    Are you willing to do the work now even if you don’t see the benefit?

Source: Behaviour Change Institute

Five attributes for sustaining change

Over the past 15 years of working with individuals and families on nutrition and lifestyle change,I have found five key themes that differentiate my clients of mine who have struggled with change (stuck strugglers), versus clients that have sustained change (shaker movers):

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Success stories

"I am a psychologist in private practice and it is very important to me that my clients have the best care with other health care professionals. For that reason Health Stand Nutrition is my only source for exceptional Dietitians. Andrea and her team provide highly knowledgeable, compassionate, and real world support to my clients who require assistance with food lifestyle. I trust my clients to them and you would be in excellent hands making them part of your health care team."
Adele Fox, Psychologist
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Rhonda Jenkins, Nutrition Counseling Client
“The Dieticians at Health Stand Nutrition help you to take action on the science behind eating well by making it practical, understandable, and fun. Their office is cozy and not at all clinical or intimidating. I felt like I was sitting down with a really smart, caring friend who wanted to help me make the best choices for my lifestyle and food preferences. They really are the best in the business.”
Marty Avery, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I have come to think of the program as a one stop shopping excursion for everything one needs to know about creating a joyous relationship with food and our bodies. In a single word, the course has gifted me with freedom from the punishing rigidity of disordered eating, old stories that never were true, and body dysmorphia that did nothing but make me lose sight of a body that has done everything I've asked, despite my careless dismissal of her needs. Now when I look in the mirror I find myself shifting from harsh criticism to gentle gratitude.”
Lynn Haley, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“I spent 3 hours when first diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I learned more from my Dietitian about food in those 3 hours than I had learned in all the years of my life. I also love the newsletter, there is always something to learn.”
Peter Whitehead, Nutrition Counseling Client
“I didn’t realize how strong my “diet mentality” was, and all the rules I had in my head about food. I was in a cycle of reward/punish/binge/cringe. I booked with your business very reluctantly, on the repeated advice of my doctor, to get my slowly rising cholesterol levels in check. I thought I knew everything about food, and my behaviour with food, but I was definitely re-schooled. My weight is creeping down, I feel good about my diet, exercise, body image, and lifestyle.”
Amy Floyd, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Thanks Andrea for an amazing presentation, I have heard all positive remarks from attendees and the evaluations show the same sentiment. It is really gratifying when a speaker does their “homework” and weaves in our profession’s day to day challenges within their content, you did an awesome job of this! You truly took the “die” out of Dietician! Your information on healthy eating and simplifying how we can work towards this as we are all so busy really hit the mark. Andrea connects very well with her audience; she is energetic, funny, and very approachable.”
Carole Ann LaGrange, Transfusion Medicine Safety Officer

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I am a family physician who sees patients with a myriad of eating concerns – from wanting to know how to plan healthy meals for active families, to weight loss, to eating disorders, and so on. I cannot recommend the Health Stand team highly enough. I have worked with (and been to!) other Dieticians in the past and too often find that they just ask for food logs and make suggestions that are easily obtained online or in books. The Dieticians at Health Stand offer much more than just telling clients what they “should be eating.” In contrast, the team really does more of a counselling practice, and they work hard to help their clients learn more about why their eating habits may be off track and not optimal for them, as well as helping people to effect change at a deep level that, most importantly, is sustainable for lifetime health.”
Dr. Deb Putnam, Family Physician

Nutrition Counseling Client & Referring Physician

“I am a busy mom, with kids in high level sports, working full-time downtown, and running our home acreage outside the City. I now have the knowledge and tools I need to plan for and manage the chaos of meal planning.”
Gillian Gray, Pursuit of Healthiness Online Course Participant
“As a construction company, we select speakers who can relate to our industry and its employees. Andrea’s message was delivered with humor and empathy. She makes people feel as though they can make changes without leaving behind every favorite food. Andrea focused her presentation on healthy eating as a way to keep energy high throughout the day. This message and the way it was delivered resonated with our predominantly male, blue collar culture. I would highly recommend Andrea as a speaker for groups such as ours. She will get your message across without alienating anyone in your audience – which is a huge hurdle when trying to introduce a wellness program in the workplace!”
Stephanie Wood, HR and Safety Manager

Fisher Construction Group, Burlington, WA

I found my Dietitian warm, funny, and skilled at teaching nutrition concepts without the overwhelm. The general approach of each session was to mix science with emotion, which was exceedingly effective in helping me shift my perspective on food from one of anxiety to one of joy and curiosity.”
Erin Kronstedt, Nutrition Counseling Client
“Excellent presentation! What a refreshing change to have a speaker inspire rather than “lecture” about nutrition. Your captivating stories, tips and overall approach to healthy eating uplifts and puts people at ease. It was great to hear we don’t need to strive to be perfect eaters, and that small changes really can make a difference in how we feel and in our health. Thanks to Andrea, we have solutions to our everyday nutrition challenges that can actually work in real life!”
Tina Tamagi, Human Resources

ARC Resources Ltd.

“Had I not joined this course I would have struggled with no focus, low energy, and mindless eating. Excellent teaching and motivation. This is not just a course, it is a nutrition club with mentorship, support, and connections with other people with similar situations.”
Lorri Lawrence, Pursuit of Healthiness online course participant

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