Collectively, we’re an unhealthy bunch.
Our children? Vastly chubbier. Our blood pressure and cholesterol? Far higher. And our heart disease and cancer rates? Staggering as compared to 50 years ago. In the 1960s, only about 10% of us were obese. Today almost 40% of us are.
I read an article today that also noted suicide and depression are at a 30-year high.
We are obese and sad! And it’s heart breaking!
What are we doing wrong? And better yet- why aren’t we changing?
Over years of counseling clients, I’ve asked myself this question countless times. Why isn’t my patient reaching the goals we set? And how can I help?
I just finished reading a book on trauma and children- it was a book Dr. P ordered and was written by a child psychiatrist. We are all familiar with what a habit is, but this author was elegant and engaging in his description of the brain and its neurological pathways as they relate to habitual behavior.
Basically, when we do something a number of times, we literally carve a path in our brain matter. Much like a path in the woods heavily trodden, this neurological marking makes it more likely we will follow this same behavior without much thought in the future.
This is why we don’t change! Why would we search out an unmarked path when we could be walking among the comfort of familiarity?
This familiarity is just the happenstance of where we are- it is not the ultimate or best behavior per se. It takes effort to sit down and tease out a new behavior.
To start the conversation and move the needle toward change, most of the time we just need some direction.
Here are some common barriers to change (BTCs) I’ve noticed occur often in my patients:
- Not knowing what to eat or how much
- Inappropriate meal timing and frequency
- Being a picky eater or having strong avoidance feelings toward healthy foods
- Having poor self-efficacy, motivation issues, or depression
- Presence of sugar, salt, or fat cravings
- Not knowing how to get enough activity with a busy life and/or what activity to do
- Unsure how to plan healthy meals
- Issues with emotional or binge eating
- Inappropriately dealing with stress
- Not getting enough sleep and relaxation to recharge
- Not knowing how to properly feed our souls with friendship, hobbies, and self-reflection
- Perceived or actual financial or access limitations
BTCs are usually just problems with logistics (think time management or not closely looking at an issue), education (needing more information or having the wrong information), lack of trying (too busy to assess or too anxious to try), or disinterest (don’t care to assess or poor motivation to change- depression falls under this umbrella).
So regardless of the goal, be it large or small, honest self-assessment to take note of our BTCs should be the first step.
But I’ve noticed that taking an unabashed, clear look at our BTCs is- for some reason- downright difficult for many of us. Some of us have a HUGE issue with looking at what we do wrong with an unbiased lens. We have trouble admitting our faults.
We must, we can, and we should, however, because not assessing is the root of stagnation.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever automatically and defensively muttered: “I know what to do, I just need to do it” and then didn’t do anything to change your behavior?
This phrase is a huge pet peeve of mine. It is a form of defensiveness that keeps us exactly where we are. Overweight, unhealthy, depressed, or whatever the issue is- we stay there because we can’t admit there may be something we could alter.
If we mute this defensiveness, we can start to change.
The fact is, if we knew what to do, we would be doing it. It is true that some people do have a more genetic susceptibility to being overweight or having high cholesterol, for example, but we can all admit when we fall short of our most bodacious selves.
So let’s repeat that: If we knew what to do, we would be doing it.
Approach your health like you would a job assignment- what is the problem, what needs to be done, what are my resources to do it, where am I still needing encouragement or information?
Here are things to self-assess (as soon as possible):
- Do we understand nutrition and exercise on a deep enough level to elicit change? The health belief model indicates we will only change when we believe we are susceptible to a negative outcome. If we think we could get heart disease, then we will start eating a heart healthy diet. If we don’t, then those extra 25 lbs we are carrying around are likely to stay there. (Trust me, we could get heart disease- we should change!).
- Do we have ideas about food that stem from our environment or upbringing? Do we react to foods from an emotional place? Instead of choosing them for their nutritional value? We should recognize where our pickiness comes from. Doing experiments to see if a food tastes different to us now that we are older or trying to prepare or incorporate foods into meals in such a way that they don’t bother us would help expand our dietary repertoire. Many of us don’t have enough variety in our diets. If we say we “hate” a food than an irrational dislike is lurking. Next time you eat out, notice where your eyes gravitate on the menu. If they naturally flock to Fried Chicken way before Spinach and Goat Cheese Salad, then we are trained to prefer these high fat foods and we should challenge this habit.
- Do we consider ourselves to not be athletic? Self-identifying as an unhealthy person or a non-athlete is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, people who view themselves as runners are more likely to run whereas if we tell ourselves, “Uggh, I should run today” it becomes a chore and is less likely to happen. We need to ask ourselves what our self-named identities are and then we can start acting accordingly. Internally, the language of our thoughts is very powerful.
- Do we have a poor understanding of how to prepare healthy meals? Telling ourselves that we “should eat healthier” and we “know what to do” when we really, deep down know we are stricken with anxiety when planning our meals and unsure how to add more veggies our kids will eat, is only serving to keep us in our current situation. Admission of needing more info is nothing to be ashamed of- do research, talk to friends to get ideas, hire an expert, or do more experimentation. Just start somewhere to move toward change.
- Are we lazy, scared of the gym, too comfortable to switch up our routine, or overwhelmed by a busy schedule? Or do we just not care enough to try to exercise/get enough sleep/de-stress? Honestly assess why we aren’t exercising or getting adequate physical activity- movement is essential to life. I’m sorry, but there is no way to be your best self without doing some form of movement. Learn to love moving in the skin we’re in!
- Are we surrounding ourselves with people, things, environmental cues that make living an unhealthy lifestyle easy? Like attracts like- start seeking out that which we wish to become.
Once we identify issues, possible solutions should be specific and reasonable. Examples include:
- Set up a time to talk to our spouse about their habits to elicit support and discuss a plan of action
- Start using mantras to learn to appreciate ourselves and our body so we can combat emotionally eating, i.e. I am brilliant. I am beautiful. I am alive.
- Organize a meal schedule to eat every 4 hours instead of going 6 or 7 without eating and then making poor choices
- Take a cooking class to increase basic cooking skills
- Scour the internet or buy a book to help with creative meal planning
- Set a goal to add fruit and vegetables at least 5 times a day (more is better!)
- Start a walk/job program a few days a week at lunch
- Hire a dietitian or personal trainer to learn more about metabolism and our own needs
- Join an online or in person support group to gain confidence and accountability
- Look up lower calorie recipes or change your cooking habits so you can have your cake and eat it too
- Clean out kitchen cabinets of all added sugar or high fat snacks and stock fridge with healthier snacks
Put the important (our health!) over the urgent (our to do list).
It can be overwhelming and discouraging to try to change “it” (all those “bad” behaviors) all at once.
So take a big breath and focus on one small BTC at a time.
Once we get started, we can be limitless.
I’d love to know, what are you struggling with?
Have a bodacious day!