Core beliefs control preventive health care


"I know what I should do, why can't I do it? I read a lot about nutrition, but I keep eating junk." If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times.

In part, the complaint grows out of our '90s misconception that all we need to succeed is a good book full of gritty facts or an inspirational workshop to conquer our deadliest habits. Think again. While knowledge may provide a power base, it doesn't necessarily tap into motivation.

For well over 30 years, behaviorists have been researching models to explain when, why and how people change. In recent years, evolving stop-smoking ideas have been borrowed and applied to eating behaviors.

If you, your family, or friends are having problems turning over a new leaf or sticking with a change, think about these ideas.

The Health Belief Model suggests that four beliefs control whether you take preventive health care action, such as changing the way you eat:

Do you believe you'll suffer a severe illness or setback if you keep eating the way you do now? Do you think your current eating habits will produce loss of affection or loss of your job, or that it will trigger a serious illness like a heart attack or stroke? Or will you suffer only minor inconveniences if you maintain the status quo? If you don't think the consequences are serious, you probably won't change.

Do you believe you are susceptible to the disasters being discussed? If no one in your family has ever had a heart attack or cancer, and you have no symptoms, do you really believe you are at risk? Or, if you've had bypass surgery, do you feel safe now because you think your new artery will take another 50 years to clog? If you doubt that the threat applies to you specifically, you probably won't change.

If you think you're at risk for serious health consequences because of your eating habits, do you believe there are actions you can take that will be effective in reducing your risks? Or do you feel helpless and doomed? If you think taking action won't change the outcome, you probably won't change.

Changing eating habits is hard to do. You may view it as expensive, time-consuming, unpleasant or inconvenient. Do you believe you have the resources to overcome those barriers and be successful at making changes? Do you believe you can sustain those changes when the going gets rough? Do you feel hopeless because you've tried in the past and failed, or do you see past failures as learning experiences that can lead to a successful future?

If you believe you are at personal risk for a serious consequence, and you believe that you can successfully overcome barriers and make changes that will save your life or your love, you will probably forge ahead.

Subconscious self-talk often controls our behavior simply because we are unaware of it, and so can't deal with it. If you think you want to change, but can't, try listening to the messages inside your head when you think no one, especially you, is listening.

Also, make sure you have your facts straight. Here are some common misconceptions that undermine healthy eating:

Don't eat fat. Wrong. While the average American eats more than 30 percent of calories from fat, a growing number have successfully cut down to recommended limits. A few, however, have carried the message too far and tried to eliminate all fat. For most people, a meal with no fat gets digested so rapidly you're running on empty long before your next meal. That's when you're likely to fall prey to junk food.

Don't eat eggs or red meat. Wrong. Americans have a history of eating too much high-fat meat and perhaps too many eggs. Reducing portion size and frequency makes way for other important foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. But health authorities have never said to give up those foods. A diet that's too limited can trigger rebellion in even the most dedicated soul. Variety is the cornerstone of a healthy diet.

Lose five pounds a week. Wrong. Despite hype to the contrary, it's impossible to lose five pounds of fat in a week. Through some drastic means you could lose that much water weight, which feels good when you get on the scale. But it comes right back when you drink fluids, creating that "always on a diet but can't lose any weight" syndrome. Slow, steady progress, losing one-half to two pounds per week works best. It just takes a little longer.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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