Develop a taste for nutritious foods
BY JENNIFER MOTL
“How does a person whose favorite comfort foods are biscuits and cornbread develop a taste for whole-wheat bread, which can be rough and sort of strong-tasting?” a reader recently asked. She added that she had been concerned about her elderly husband’s eating patterns.
The struggle to adapt to eating better foods covers far more than whole-wheat bread. It can be tricky to help a spouse, child or aging parent change their eating habits for the better.
Below are some proven tricks that make change easier. Give them a try if you’re hoping to improve your health by eating nutritious foods.
DEFINE YOUR MOTIVATION
As a dietitian, I recommend you define your goal. For the reader mentioned above, why are you trying to eat more whole-wheat bread? Are you concerned about your cholesterol or your blood pressure?
In both situations, whole grains, while useful, are not the most important first step you could take. For example, if you have high cholesterol, you may need to watch your saturated fat intake. If you have high blood pressure, you may need to reduce sodium.
Whole-wheat bread is more healthful than white bread—whole grains are slow-release carbohydrates, which provide a more steady release of energy than refined grains like white bread. Whole grains also are higher in fiber and some vitamins and minerals.
So, setting a goal of eating more wheat bread may be wise—it’s just important to understand why that goal matters to you.
FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE
Try to make your goal more positive than negative. For example, “try whole-grain blueberry muffins” is more helpful than “give up biscuits.” Focus on what nourishes you, not what might make you feel deprived.
I highly recommend Chip and Dan Heath’s book, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.” The Heath brothers are professors who study marketing and psychology. They say that sometimes people appear to be stubborn or undisciplined about food (and other habits), but the real problems are that people:
- Lack clarity on what actions they should do first
- Feel exhausted by the size of the changes they need to make
- Feel overwhelmed by the temptation of less healthy choices.
The Heaths recommend you “find the bright spots” by thinking of ways you are already successful. What heart-healthy foods do you already enjoy? Make a list of all the fruits and veggies you like, for example.
The reader who wrote in about liking cornbread more than whole wheat is actually partially successful, too, as corn bread contains cornmeal—a whole grain.
NARROW THINGS DOWN
The Heaths recommend that you “script the critical moves.” In other words, figure out the most important action (or handful of actions) you can take to accomplish your goal.
If your goal is to lower your cholesterol level, for example, it’s important to eat less saturated fat—the artery-clogging type of fat. Changing from whole milk to 1 percent milk can be a very effective and simple first step.
If you’re not sure what step to take first, consider keeping a food diary for a few days and taking it to a registered dietitian for some advice.
CONNECT WITH FEELINGS
Next, find the emotion that motivates you. If knowledge alone changed behavior, we would have already eradicated smoking and obesity.
Instead, look for a feeling you hope to have, the reason why you want to accomplish your goal. Perhaps you want to feel refreshed and energetic enough to enjoy your family or take a vacation. Post photos of yourself doing things you enjoy on your fridge so that you remember what you’re working for more of.
Several studies show it’s more helpful to focus on happy moments you hope to have rather than on fear of death or shame about being overweight.
TAKE A BABY STEP
Another thing the Heath brothers advise is that you “Shrink the change.” Make your first step small enough that you can start doing it today, in just a few minutes’ time.
So, if your goal is to eat more whole grains, but giving up biscuits sounds overwhelming, start smaller. Try substituting half the flour in the biscuits for whole wheat. Or try making French toast with whole-grain bread.
Once that is going OK, perhaps in a few days or a week, you can try another whole-grain food. Each small step advances you toward your goal.
If you’re trying to eat less, consider using smaller plates, bowls and cups. Researcher Brian Wansink has shown that the way to get moviegoers to eat less popcorn is simply to give them smaller buckets of it!
If you’re trying to eat more fruit, display some fresh plums and peaches in a bowl on your kitchen table so it’s easier to grab them than to root through a cabinet in search of chips.
GET ON AUTO-PILOT
Making choices is draining, so try to minimize daily decisions by doing some things the same way over and over. For example, plan to snack on a bowl of bean and veggie soup each afternoon—one study found dieters felt more satisfied when they snacked on soup.
And consider setting an “action trigger”—according to the Heath brothers, visualizing where and when you will act triples your chance of success. So, imagine snacking on soup in your office break room at 2 p.m.
BUDDY UP AND CELEBRATE
Finally, harness the power of contagious behavior by rallying folks behind you. Find a friend or family member who is trying to make the same change. Have daily phone calls or emails where you report to each other your progress.
Be sure you celebrate your successes—even a tiny step in the right direction is key, and positive reinforcement is effective.
As a dietitian, I have seen worried wives trying to nag their husbands toward healthier eating. Not once have I seen nagging work. In fact, when wives leave the room, husbands sometimes confess to covert rebellion such as secretly stashing cases of pork rinds in the basement.
Instead of nagging, express love, encourage successes, respectfully ignore less desirable choices and be a partner in eating more healthfully.
I know it’s trite to quote Gandhi’s dictum to “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but it really does apply to families. You can’t expect your spouse or child to eat bran muffins while you gorge on greasy corn puffs. Everyone needs to take part.
Start small, and watch the changes snowball into success.
EASIER OVER TIME
As you attempt to embrace healthier eating habits, expect some bumps in the road, and realize setbacks do not mean you have failed. Your goal may be difficult, but it will get easier to reach over time.
Just being exposed to something eventually makes it more palatable. For example, authors Chip and Dan Heath, in their book about change, wrote that Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it was first built. But over time, they grew to love its extraordinary architecture.
Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteat ing.com, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.