Every issue of this newsletter is packed with ideas to help you live healthier, longer by eating better and being more active. But if you want to adopt healthy habits and stick to them, Tufts Sara C. Folta, PhD, says you have to master your inner elephant.
Folta specializes in behavioral changes to promote healthy lifestyles Most people know what they need to do to live healthier, she says, but dont do it.
Thats where the elephant comes in-a popular metaphor in a model of be-havior called dual-process. As explained by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virgin-ia psychologist, your emotional, instinc-tive side is like an elephant, controlled (sometimes) by your cognitive, reflective, planning side-the rider. The elephant wants instant gratification, while the rider thinks long-term. The elephant wants to eat that entire bag of chips, while the rider urges restraint and counts calories.
The elephant wants what it wants, and wants it right now, says Folta. To change behavior, you have to enlist both the rider and the elephant, to get them both going in the same direction.
Goal-setting and planning-typi-cal rider activities-are all well and good for resolving to eat more nutritious meals or exercise more. But most such resolutions ultimately fail because your inner elephant cant be directed for long by such appeals to reason.
To motivate the elephant, you need a more emotional appeal, Folta explains. You might try focusing on why you want to live healthier, longer: Picture yourself at your grandchilds wedding or doing that traveling youve always dreamed of.
When researchers at the National Weight Control Registry studied success-ful dieters, they found those who lost the most and kept the pounds off envisioned highly specific goals. Seeing themselves fitting into a bikini or breaking through a milestone on the scale became a crav-ing stronger than that for sweets or another serving.
TRAINING YOUR WILLPOWER: Your best inten-tions can be sab-otaged by stress and surprises, which tip you into automatic elephant mode. People get over-whelmed, says Folta. They get a lot thrown at them. Theres a lot of stress in everyday life. Studies have shown that even learning something new, or being forced to use your left hand if youre right-handed, can stress you out enough to put the elephant in control.
Research by Florida State Univer-sity psychologist Roy Baumeister has shown that willpower is like a muscle: When self-control is overused, it gets weak. People in the lab who had to resist indulging in chocolate, for example, were less able to exercise willpower over the next challenge.
Training your willpower the way you would physical muscles can help build self-control. Small, consistent acts of self-control can boost your willpower over time. Northwestern University research-ers found that subjects who forced them-selves to refrain from cursing and to say yes instead of yeah displayed greater self-control after only two weeks.
Other scientists have suggested that weakened willpower may be related to low blood sugar. Obviously, replenish-ing your short-term willpower with a jolt of candy or a sugary soda would be counterproductive to your healthy-eating goals. But eating a diet with plenty of whole grains that slowly release energy all day can help boost the self-control needed to keep eating right.
SET CLEAR GOALS: Your rider can pose problems, too. Particularly in a field like nutrition and health, its easy to get lost in a welter of information. Pursuing this fact and that study, the analytical rider might never get beyond planning and researching a healthy diet to actually eating better.
In the book Switch (see box), Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe a West Virginia University project that aimed to persuade two West Virginia communi-ties to improve their diets. Boggled by the variety of ways residents could eat better, researchers finally settled on a simple goal: Convince people to switch from whole milk, high in the saturated fat thats linked to heart disease, to skim or 1% milk. The project rolled out in the local media, in-cluding ads informing the target audience that a glass of whole milk contains as much saturated fat as five strips of bacon.
After the campaign, the market share of low-fat milk had risen from 18% to 41%. Even six months later, 35% of milk purchases-almost double the previous market share-were low-fat.
The lesson? What looks like resis-tance is often lack of clarity, the authors note. If you want people to change, you must provide crystal-clear direction.
Similarly, if you want to change how you eat, give yourself unambiguous goals. Eat better wont work. Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day is better, if youre clear on the definition of a serv-ing. Eat fish twice a week and eat red meat no more than twice a week might be specific goals you can translate into action, though eat fish every Tuesday and Friday and no red meat on weekdays are clearer. Black and white goals are best: Make half your grains whole might be too hard to put into daily practice. No more white rice and buy only whole-grain pasta are easier rules to follow.
CHANGE YOUR LOOP: Habits can be either good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Tak-ing a brisk walk every morning might be a habit youve developed, but so might be eating a doughnut every morning at 10 when you take a coffee break. Habits are patterns of behavior we follow almost without thinking or even being aware of them-automatic activities your el-ephant is trained to follow.
Behavior experts refer to a habit loop thats made up of three steps: First comes the cue, whatever signal that triggers the habit (the clock shows 10, time for a break!). The cue leads to a routine, which could be physical, mental or even emotional (grab that doughnut). Finally, the routine gives you a reward (the sweet, fatty richness of biting into a doughnut), which trains your brain-if the reward is good enough-to remem-ber and repeat this loop.
Habits are essential to getting through the day. Imagine if you had to stop and ponder every little action in your life, from fetching your car keys to making coffee. Research on people with brain damage that prevents them from forming and following habits has found them paralyzed by the countless demands of everyday life.
But habits can perpetuate unhealthy behaviors, like that daily doughnut. To break unhealthy habits, you have to be very intentional, says Folta. You need to pay attention to the cues and the routines and substitute a different reward that doesnt detract from your long-term goals. Keep records of what youre doing and why.
Maybe what you really crave at mid-morning isnt a sweet treat so much as a dis-traction, or the company of others you meet at the doughnut stand. Could a 10 oclock walk around the block with a few friends substitute for the reward in this routine?
SMOOTH THE PATHWAY: Another strat-egy, developed in an approach called behavioral economics, is to alter your environment in ways that promote more positive habits. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, suggests steps as simple as putting a fruit bowl in a prominent spot in your kitchen. Says Folta, Then you dont have to think about choosing a piece of fruit, dont even have to open the refrigerator. Your decision is pre-made.
Wansinks number-one advice for people trying to eat less is even simpler: Use smaller dinnerware. His research has shown that people eat more if the plates, bowls and glasses are bigger.
Deciding in advance how you will respond to certain cues-another way of smoothing the pathway to healthier be-havior-can also help make smart choices easier. Suppose youre going out to lunch with friends, Folta explains. You could look at the menu online and decide in advance to order something healthy. That way, youve created a pattern in your brain, regardless of what your friends order. Youre not faced with this complex set of decisions at the restaurant.
Making grocery lists is another obvi-ous way of smoothing the pathway to smart choices, as is menu planning. If you have the ingredients for healthy eating at hand and a recipe already picked out, its much easier to resist the urge to throw up your hands and just order pizza. Indeed, pizza delivery then requires an alteration in your implementation intentions-its mentally easier to follow along the healthy pathway youve already paved.
Says Folta, In my own life, I get up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym. So the night before, I get everything ready. I pack my gym bag. Everything is set up so it would require an effort to change plans and not go to the gym. Even at 5 a.m., my elephant is pretty happy.