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If being healthy is just like any other choice why is it so hard?

4 min read

Hard choices make us feel like we are being pulled in two directions - doing healthy things can feel like a battle between the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. The wicked devil impels us to give in to the burger for lunch while the virtuous angel is nagging us to opt for a salad. Getting to the root causes of healthy behaviors is important because they are a big part of individual and public health.

After all, the leading causes of death in the UK, cancer and heart disease among others, are in part caused by our own behaviours. This could be tackled at society level if were able to more easily learn new ways to change our behaviour to be more healthful.

Being healthy isn't a battle between good and evil

The truth is being healthy isn't a battle between good and evil, it's simply a choice, just like any other. It is too complicated to analyse the cause of behaviour, in whatever context, in terms of two opposing forces - our minds contain a multitude of systems for making decisions and people choose many different ways to strategise healthy behaviour, some things work for certain people while not for others. Self-control of unhealthy impulses is more like a many-sided negotiation.

For example, some people avoid temptation by removing it altogether, so in effect they are negating the battle. Others plan indulgence in advance in order to reward themselves for what they deem good behaviour. Others will learn how to become excited about healthy options by swapping out the foods they indulge in with healthier alternatives.

It's also important to understand there can be many reasons behind making a healthy or unhealthy choice, if you're out to lunch with a group of friends you've met at the gym whom you perceive to value health then the superfood salad might be more appealing and easier choice than the burger you would normally be tempted by. The reason behind the behaviour here would be to exert a choice that perpetuates the belief you belong amongst this new group of people. Effectively you want to impress and 'fit in' with the group and that's the primary motivator. Or perhaps your dietary choices underpin a large part of your self-concept, so ordering a burger rather than a salad reaffirms sense of self. The bottom line is that there may be many reasons behind a person making a healthy or unhealthy choice, the best psychological theory would need to account for that diversity of motives.

There are different ways of thinking of health as a choice

There are different ways of thinking of health as a choice - research has uncovered what are called anomalies in choice, effectively they are quirks where choice differs from what would be optimal. For example there is one theory called the decoy effect. This describes cases where a third option in a choice changes behaviour. So, going back to the burger v. salad analogy, if there is a third option a very Mega Healthy Superfood Salad then you might be more tempted to opt for the moderately healthy salad over the burger when all options are considered. This behaviour represents an anomaly because an option that would never normally be chosen influences the ultimate decision. This way of thinking is also useful in helping to change health behaviours.

Another anomaly that can be useful for changing health behaviors is realizing that the value of something good is not constant - its called the law of diminishing marginal utility. In a series of studies researchers found that merely imagining eating tasty treats before being served them reduced the amount people ate. Imagined eating, it appears, caused their utility to diminish.

Being healthy doesn’t need to be moralised

Perhaps the most successful strategy however comes from reminding yourself that being healthy doesn’t need to be moralised. We tend to moralise health behaviors in our society, in part because that feeling is probably related to the anticipated guilt of choosing the 'bad' option. Feeling guilty is a natural, ingrained response to doing something perceived as 'bad' and therein lies the root of the problem. People will call food 'good' or 'bad' every day and this practice is harmful because it moralizes what you eat in a way that's all too easy to apply to yourself. In other words it makes people feel like they are good or bad based on their food choices, which of course is not the case. It's important to understand what this kind of thinking really does.

One of the most common responses to food guilt is to spiral out of control. If people have a cupcake, they think they've blown it all and eat even more (sometimes called “what-the-hell effect”). This can lead to taking in a lot more calories than you would if you just let yourself have something tasty without it being so emotionally charged.

Instead of dividing food into good and bad camps incorporate everything in moderation, this not only allows for a more sustainable way to live, but is also a kinder way to treat yourself. It also helps ward off the deprivation that comes with trying to avoid food guilt. When you view food as fuel for your body, some that fuels it in the most ideal way and some that doesn’t but isn't inherently evil, you can get closer to your health goals and be happier overall.

A healthy balanced diet is the best way to consume all the nutrients we need. Sometimes however this isn't possible and then supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying any supplements or herbal medicines.