What motivates us to stick with a diet or healthy eating regimen? How do we make healthy eating become a habit and not a chore?
All too often, we use fear of what might happen in the future to try and change our behavior in the present. We think, “I can’t have dessert because it will make me fat.” We try to bully ourselves into dieting using negative self-talk and threats. We punish ourselves for failing before we even begin. This method of fear-based motivation is unpleasant, damaging, and it usually doesn’t work. Here is why negative thinking fails:
Nobody likes bad news.
The research shows that warnings and threats actually have a very limited impact on our behavior. This is because humans have a tendency to ignore or discount bad news.
We all know that an unhealthy diet can lead to health problems in the future. The threat of disease later in life is supposed to motivate us to make healthy choices in the present. But when something scares us, we tend to shut down or try to rationalize away the threat. We find ways to ignore the warnings and justify our actions. For example, we might think, “Well, I have good genes, so I will be fine.” Or perhaps we latch onto one study we read that told us what we wanted to hear, ignoring all the other data available. We look for positive information to relieve the uncomfortable feelings caused by a threat.
Lean into positivity.
The brain naturally responds better to positivity than negativity. Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s research reveals that because positive information makes us feel good, we seek it out. Meanwhile, negative information makes us feel bad and we try to avoid it. This means we are more likely to change our beliefs based on good news while ignoring the bad. It might sound obvious, but this asymmetrical belief formation has a profound influence on human motivation.
To put it plainly, people are more willing to receive information they want to hear over information they don’t. Therefore, we can more effectively motivate ourselves by focusing on the positive outcomes of our actions and leaving the negativity behind. Of course warnings serve an important function and we should continue to pay attention to them. But Sharot says, “Fear induces inaction, while the thrill of the gain induces action.” In order to make healthy eating a habit, we must focus on the gains.
Everybody likes immediate rewards.
Humans love instant gratification. This is why many diets fail when they are rooted in negative thinking. We want to feel good, not bad. (Speaking of feeling good, follow these tips to practice breathing deeper, which also improves mood and reduces stress.)
In order to flip the script, give yourself an immediate reward in the form of positive feedback. For example, suppose you are trying to decide whether to eat a t-bone steak or a hearty salad for lunch. You might think, “I can’t have the steak I want because it could affect my heart health in the future,” but this negative mindset sets you up to fail. Instead, focus on how energized you will feel after eating the salad. Celebrate making that healthy choice for yourself right now.
A little positivity goes a long way.
To learn more about healthy eating, check out Healbright’s Healthy Eating content from Dr. Cheri King on Zeamo On-Demand