Plans to change behavior, like embarking on a diet, are a function of thoughts, the belief that weight loss is possible by making better food choices. But a new study suggests that when it comes to making a food choice and deciding to execute the plan, feelings guide behavior.
“There is clearly a disconnect if we have a majority of the population that has tried to lose weight and a majority of the population that is overweight,” said Marc Kiviniemi, Ph.D., a public health researcher at the University at Buffalo.
“People are planning to diet and trying to diet, but that’s not translating into a successful weight loss effort.”
At any given time, about one-third of the adult population in the U.S. says they are currently dieting. Despite the effort, 60 percent of American adults are clinically overweight or obese and more than 16 percent of deaths nationwide are related to diet and physical activity.
A host of reasons contribute to dietary failures with issues ranging from biological to environmental. However, the way people manage their own behavior is a big piece of that puzzle.
Dieting is a process that involves a plan to change eating behavior and behaving according to that plan. But the factors that guide diet planning differ from those that guide actual diet behavior, according to the results of Kiviniemi’s new study with Carolyn Brown-Kramer, Ph.D., of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“The crux of the disconnect is the divide between thoughts and feelings. Planning is important, but feelings matter, and focusing on feelings and understanding their role can be a great benefit,” said Kiviniemi, associate professor of community health and health behavior.
“If you’re sitting back conceiving a plan you may think rationally about the benefits of eating healthier foods, but when you’re in the moment, making a decision, engaging in a behavior, it’s the feelings associated with that behavior that may lead you to make different decisions from those you planned to make.”
The findings highlight the shortcomings of deprivation diets or diets based on food choices that ignore people’s preferences.
“First of all, the deprivation experience is miserable. If you didn’t associate negative feelings with it to start, you will after a few days,” said Kiviniemi.
“The other thing that’s important is the distinction between things that require effort and things that are automatic.
“Planning is an effort that demands mental energy, but feelings happen automatically. Deprivation or anything that demands a high degree of self-control is a cognitive process. If you put yourself in a position to use that energy every time you make a food choice that energy is only going to last so long.”
Feeling good about what you are eating should be a prime consideration as individuals contemplate a behavior change.
“In the dietary domain, eating more fruits and vegetables is fabulous advice. But if you have negative feelings about those food choices, they might not represent elements of a good plan,” said Kiviniemi.
“It’s not just about eating healthy foods. It’s about eating the healthy foods you like the most.”
It’s not easy, and a lot of work is required to move intention to action, which is why Kiviniemi said planning should be broadly based on both thoughts and feelings.
“Think seriously about how you’re going to implement the plans you make to change your behavior, and that includes not only the feeling component, but how you plan to overcome a negative reaction that might surface during a diet.”
It’s not just the knowledge of what we’re eating, but consideration of how we’ll feel having decided to eat those foods, he says.
The research is published in the Journal of Health Psychology.
Source: University of Buffalo