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How to spread healthy eating habits

Posted Jun 26 2010 12:00am
No, it’s not your imagination: obesity is contagious. Studies have shown that people whose friends and family are overweight are more likely to be overweight themselves. People tend to base their behavior on that of the other members of their social network. In other words, if everyone at your office is munching doughnuts at the morning meeting, what chance do you have?

More than you think! Because it can also work in the opposite direction. If you adopt healthy habits, the people in your social circle may follow suit.

No doubt about it, it’s easier to be a follower than a leader. Being the lone person at the table refraining from dessert is like being the only one at a party who’s not drinking. It can feel like you’re missing out. People notice. They say things like: “This cheesecake is incredible. How come you’re not having any? You’re so good. No wonder you’re so skinny” (or, worse, “How come you’re not skinny?”).

Honestly, I’ve never known how to handle comments like these, so I usually just smile ambiguously. If I think of a better response, I’ll let you know.

See, neither a snappy comeback nor a health lecture would be constructive here. If we want to steer friends and family in a positive direction, we can start by not making them feel bad about not being “good.”

In fact, don’t even think of it as being good. You’re just doing what works for your body. You know eating sugary junk is going to negatively affect your health and probably make you feel sick later, so that’s incentive enough to avoid it, don’t you think? No need to slap a moral value judgment on top of that.

Here are some other ways to resist the gravitational pull of unhealthy behavior, and draw people into your orbit instead.
  • Don’t judge your friends’ food choices, even if they comment on yours. Don’t act holier-than-thou, or people will resent you, rather than wanting to follow your example.
  • Take an active role in food procurement. Become the grocery shopper in your household. If you have a chance to make food decisions for your social circle - for example, if you’re going out to eat or planning a party - make sure there are healthy options. Let people sample the foods you like to eat and see why you prefer them.
  • Don’t be an enabler. If people want junk food, they can get it themselves. (Really, it’s not difficult.) Sure, sugary goodies are popular, but if you serve healthy eats instead, you’d be surprised how many people will feel relieved.
  • Secretly tempted to break down and grab one of those office doughnuts? Ask yourself why. Maybe you didn’t eat enough protein or healthy fat for breakfast, and now you’re kind of hungry again. You can inoculate yourself against junk food by eating enough real food beforehand. As I like to tell my health coaching clients, “Ruin your appetite for dessert.”
  • Occasionally, dessert actually is incredible, sublime, and not-to-be-missed. In these rare instances, save room for a small piece and enjoy. I don’t feel chain-restaurant doughnuts fall into this category, do you?
  • For more on how to help loved ones make better choices, read my post “ Are You a Health Cop?

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