Justin Robinson by Justin Robinson

When it comes to discussing behavior change and nutrition with your clients, it is outside of your scope of practice as a health and exercise professional to provide psychological counseling or detailed menu plans (unless you have additional credentials in that field). However, if you aren’t talking to your clients about their health behaviors and nutrition, you could be missing important areas of potential improvement.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012), nearly half of the decisions we make in a day are not actually decisions—they are habits. That is, we complete tasks without a conscious thought (brushing your teeth and backing out of the driveway, for example, require almost no effort).

If this same theory also holds true for food decisions, many people probably put little-to-know thought into half of their intake. The decision to stop on the way to work for a coffee drink or eat candy in the afternoon may not be a conscious thought, but a habit driven by a cue. And, unfortunately, as Duhigg writes, some habits are “so strong, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else… including common sense.”

Thus, if you want to encourage your clients to adopt a healthier lifestyle, focus on the process. Adaptation is a process, and being process-oriented rather than results-oriented may actually lead to better long-term results (and therefore, better client retention). Clients may be looking for immediate results, but they hire a health and exercise professional to help them learn, grow and progress in multiple areas of health and wellness.

What are the associative habits that lead to healthier behaviors? Your clients undoubtedly know they should eat a variety of whole, unprocessed foods, but how do you help your clients turn choosing whole foods into a daily behavior?

Contrary to what some believe, invoking fear or shame in your clients does not work. As health psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal writes, “When put to the scientific test, [fear and shaming] messages push people toward the very behaviors the health professionals hope to change.” In other words, this tactic actually increases unhealthy behaviors.

What are the keystone habits for improved nutrition? Exercise is certainly one. According to researcher James Prochaska, lead developer of the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change and author of Changing to Thrive (Hazelden, 2016), when people start exercising regularly they also start eating better, become more productive, smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and families.

Advising clients to adopt the following five habits may help improve their chances for success for healthy eating:

  1. Increase awareness of current habits. “Once you’re aware of how your habit works—once you recognize the cues and rewards—you are halfway to changing it,” writes Dr. Nathan H. Azrin, a behavioral modification researcher, psychologist and university professor. Because many people have a tendency to mindlessly consume food, awareness is the vital first step in developing healthier habits. Help your clients recognize and care about what they are (and are not) eating and how much. Calories count, but you do not always need to count them. Understanding patterns and triggers/cues is far more useful than calculating calories and macros. Keeping a detailed food record (either on paper or online) that allows for subjective comments for two to three days is a great starting point.
  2. Plan dinners for the week. Clients may notice that it’s easier to make healthy lifestyle decisions early in the day. Making smart choices is especially challenging when life becomes hectic. Consider a typical evening after a long day at work, picking up the kids, sitting in traffic and arriving home at 6:00 PM. Feeling mentally and physically exhausted, many people are far more likely to heat up a frozen pizza or grab fast food rather than decide what healthy food to make and then actually cook it. Planning a dinner menu for the week removes the energy associated with making a decision when you are tired and hungry. Further, it helps create a shopping list for the week. Urge your clients to plan to use fresh foods (e.g., salads and fish) early in the week and foods that last (e.g., frozen vegetables and meats) later in the week.
  3. Sit down to eat, share and unplug. Within the past five years, surveys suggest that one out of five meals is consumed in the car and nearly half of all meals and snacks are eaten alone. Eating in solitude is associated with both less nutritious food consumption and increased technology usage. In other words, individuals are much more likely to engage in work or whatever else they are doing on their mobile device, rather than having a conversation or focusing on the meal. Similarly, the majority of American families report eating a meal together fewer than five days a week. Sitting down to eat with family or friends can coincide with a cascade of healthy behaviors. One study, for example, found that children who eat dinner with their families eat healthier foods, are less overweight, tend to miss less school and have better academic performance, have less trouble with alcohol and drugs, and report being closer to their parents.
  4. Enjoy food. Eating indulging foods should not produce guilt. When referring to foods and behaviors, throw out the words good and bad. Instead, consider what should be done more frequently and what should be done less frequently. Encourage clients to eat a variety of foods and remind them that it’s O.K. to indulge occasionally.
  5. Begin with the end in mind. As Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (RosettaBooks, 2013), urged, establishing a long-term goal and creating a series of small goals to progress toward that end goal develops consistent behaviors that develop into habits. One example is to sign up for a race or event (e.g., a half-marathon in six months with a 5K and 10K along the way). This “carrot” is what leads to those extra 20 minutes of exercise that might not otherwise have been done. And those 20 minutes, a few days a week, over the course of a year add up to a significant change and hopefully new habits. Additionally, encourage a growth mindset; that is, do not allow your clients to define themselves by their shortcomings or failures. After a hiccup, do not wait until Monday (or the 1st of the month) to reboot, but instead start back up on a healthy eating plan after those last few bites of dessert.

The simple truth is that no single secret or keystone habit exists. Hard work, consistency and patience—on both the health and exercise professional and client’s part—are vital to fostering lasting results. Above all, establish a consistently healthy culture that becomes contagious.

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