Diet plans make us believe we’re the problem if we failed to improve our eating habits on their diet. But key principles of “behavior change psychology” teach us that it’s how diets approach eating habit change as the real issue.
So there’s nothing wrong with you if you’ve “failed” on a diet, or a meal plan. You’re not flawed if you “cheated; nor are you a willpower weakling if you couldn’t establish perfect eating habits in twenty-one days.
Armed with the wisdom of change psychology, I hope you’ll stop berating and blaming yourself, show yourself compassion and make an empowering choice to get off the dieting treadmill for good.
The Seven Myths of Changing Your Eating Habits
Let’s debunk the seven myths of how to change your eating habits, starting with one of the most common ones:
1. Just tell me what to eat
In a 2021 study on human behavior change and dieting, Stanford University scientists confirmed what we already know about human behavior: what we say we want isn’t what we actually want or need.
In the first four weeks of the study, participants received all their meals and snacks. Yet even when eating healthy was made “easy,” participants still struggled to follow the plan, reporting adherence on average of a seven out of ten. Then, in the next eight weeks of the study, participants shopped, prepped, and cooked their own diet compliant meals. And as expected, adherence dropped further to fifty percent.
But what’s the real “ah-ha” from the study?
Participants were given the choice to continue food delivery or shop, prep and cook on their own. And they all declined food delivery. (Mainly, they preferred more variety in their meals and snacks).
And there’s one more stunner.
While participants “were eager to receive shopping lists, recipes, and sample meals,” and “expressed strong intentions of using these materials,” they rarely used them. In the end, participants only made small adjustments to their typical diet.
Ultimately, diets don’t solve the complex challenges that humans have.
2. To improve eating habits, “Just do it”
Next, we might believe that changing our habits is as simple as “just do it.”
Dr. John Berardi, founder of Precision Nutrition and nutrition advisor for companies like Apple and Nike and pro and Olympic athletes, offers a great analogy to illustrate why diets and strict meal plans aren’t effective strategies for change.
He compares giving someone a diet and telling them to “just do it,” to giving a beginner exerciser a heavily loaded weight bar and saying copy me to do a snatch, an advanced exercise. A diet involves complex skills too, forcing you to make a bunch of difficult changes all at once and then sustain them perfectly.
But that’s not how we set someone up for successful change while learning any new skill.
Instead, simply the process of change. Start where you’re at with an assessment of your current nutrition skills. From there, build the ones that you need (versus a one-size fits all diet) with practice, through specific consistent actions that you’re ready, willing and able to do within the context of your life.
Even if you could write a book on nutrition, consider approaching change as if you were that beginner weightlifter. Don’t load yourself with a heavy bar and a complicated exercise that you may not have the ability to do yet.
3. Where’s my willpower?
While willpower is commonly considered a limited resource, current research shows this to be true – only if we believe it to be true.
Willpower, like a muscle, can be strengthened.
With a growth mindset, the belief that anything can be improved with sustained effort, you can build resilience.
4. 21 days, now what?
Additionally, I bet you’ve probably heard that it takes twenty-one days to build a habit.
But James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, disagrees.
So again, focus on consistency while developing any new skill like improving your eating habits; no perfection is necessary.
5. Coach, kick my butt
So next, while you may think you need coach “hard-ass” to motivate and keep you accountable to improve your eating habits, think again.
Change psychology research shows it’s human nature to resist being told what to do. Even if we insist it’s what we want and need, that rebellious teenager in you can emerge.
Instead, look for a health coach specializing in behavior change, a “non-judgmental guide, trained in motivational interviewing, appreciate inquiry and allyship” recommends Sandra Scheinbaum in a 2022 Forbes article.
While support facilitates the change process, an effective coaching relationship is collaborative and compassionate. A coach is someone who believes in you and harnesses your natural strengths to support change by nurturing self-efficacy.
6. Just set a smart goal
Furthermore, while we think we just need a clearly defined goal to shift our eating habits, what actually drives successful change is deep clarity on why it’s important to you, beyond your superficial why.
Try “The Five Whys” exercise developed by the Toyota company. Ask yourself why your goal is important to you five times, until the clearest reason emerges, one that honors your personal values and priorities.
Change thrives with a clear purpose.
7. On and off the wagon
And finally, for some reason, (um thanks diet culture), we think we need to be perfect, or we failed when trying to improve our eating habits.
We’re either “on the wagon” or off.
Maybe you’ve seen the image illustrating how change really works – a scribbled line with loops up and down. Yes, change is that messy.
So instead, what if you kept “the wagon” rolling along with consistency?
What if we normalized and expected bumps in the road?
What if we saw obstacles and challenges not as failures, but as feedback, opportunities for learning and growth?
Now that’s an empowering and effective approach to change rather than labeling yourself a failure, feeling guilty or ashamed for “cheating.”
So the next time you think you want or need a meal plan or diet to improve your eating habits, challenge yourself and remember that’s not how human behavior change really works. ♡ Tanya