Why it's so damn hard to live healthfully – and how to make it MUCH easier (Part 1)Looking back on over 20 years of clinical practice as a naturopath and 17 as a counsellor, there's one fact that really jumps out at me: CHANGE IS HARD!!!!!!
Even when my clients and program participants know they need to change – they understand how their habits of eating, exercising (or not), thinking, feeling and relating to others are causing most or all of their health and personal problems; they see the sense in the changes I recommend they make in order to be healthy and happy; they're intellectually committed to making those changes – even after all of that, the vast majority of people still find it enormously difficult to change their behaviour.
The primary reason I undertook training as a counsellor, after 4 years at naturopathic college and 2 years in practice, was to try to understand why people find it so hard to change, and what I could do to help them.
It took more than a 2-year Graduate Diploma of Counselling to figure that one out, but I think I've got it covered now. So here are my top 5 reasons why living healthfully is so damn hard, and what you can do to turn that around.
Reason # 1: Our society is deeply sick, and those who are supposed to keep us well are sick themselves.
Does that sound extreme? Look around you. Every time I go to the supermarket, I see morbidly obese people pushing shopping trolleys full of processed food up to the check-out. Then I watch them painfully hobble into the pharmacy to get their prescriptions filled – prescriptions for diabetes pills, high blood pressure pills, cholesterol-lowering pills, erectile dysfunction pills, anti-depressant pills and every other pill under the sun – most or all of which would be become completely unnecessary if they changed what they ate.
It's a macabre merry-go-round: eat the food that makes you sick; go to the doctor whose prescription essentially acts as a permission slip to continue your unhealthy behaviour; keep eating the food that makes you sick; get even sicker and return to the doctor…
To the food and pharmaceutical industries (which are disturbingly closely intertwined), these unfortunate people are simply profit-centres, to be exploited all through their lives until there's no more profit to be wrung from them.
And who prescribed those pills? Doctors, who themselves are very likely to be overweight and unhealthy – in a survey of Australian GPs, 44% reported suffering from chronic health problems while another survey found that 55% are inactive, compared to 38% of the general population.
Having received the most minimal education in nutrition and self-care while at medical school, doctors simply don't know how to take care of their own health. No wonder less than 50% of people surveyed rated their GP's recommendations about healthy eating and physical activity as useful.
But doctors aren't the only unhealthy role models. When I go to seminars pitched at naturopaths, I'm always struck by how many overweight, unhealthy-looking practitioners I see there. Often even the speakers are overweight.
My husband is floored by how many of the personal trainers at the YMCA where he works out, are, not to put too fine a point on it, fat. Talk about the blind leading the blind!
Reason # 2: We are constantly bombarded by messages that unhealthy foods are much more fun than healthy ones, and that eating them will make us feel better about ourselves.What do you see when you turn on your TV, leaf through a magazine, or drive down the highway? A constant barrage of ads for junk food that subliminally persuade you that consuming this particular food or beverage will solve all our problems and make you happy.
In the spirit of Crazy People, the 1990 comedy in which Dudley Moore plays a disenchanted ad executive who is committed to a psychiatric hospital for designing a series of 'truth in advertising' slogans such as the deeply memorable "Jaguar — For men who'd like hand-jobs from beautiful women they hardly know" and "Volvo — they're boxy but they're good", I'd like to offer you a few translations of the 'real' messages hidden in junk food ads:
"Ferrero Rocher: It's a pretty half-arsed substitute for actually feeling loved by another human being, but at least you can buy it anywhere."
"Coke – it's the drink for socially awkward people who are desperate and deluded enough to think that consuming an overpriced beverage will help them look cool and make friends."
"Magnum: Haven't had really good sex for a really long time? Eat our ice creams and you'll forget about that for a little while. (Eat enough of them for long enough and you'll probably never have really good sex again.)"
The reality is, as I explain in The LEAN Program, my 6-week intensive expressly designed to help you overcome food cravings, emotional eating and food addiction, that our brain's response to constant overstimulation by the excessive amounts of sugar, salt and fat in these 'fun foods' actually results in a diminished capacity to experience pleasure.
There simply is no substitute for the healthy 'highs' our neurochemistry is set up for: physical activity (especially novel forms of it), love and connections with others, and of course, good sex :). Everything we try to do to bypass our fundamental needs for these 3 things, ends up thwarting our capacity to feel good.
Reason # 3: Trying to live healthfully feels like being a salmon swimming upstream.One of the main concerns I hear from my clients, after I've explained what's caused their health problems and how to fix them, is "But how I am going to eat this way when my husband, my kids, my colleagues and practically everybody else in my life won't makes the change with me?"
And boy, do I sympathise with them! I dropped meat from my diet when I was 15 years old, and for the next 15 years I had to contend with a barrage of bad jokes, snide remarks, opposition and criticism from my family and even many of my friends.
It did my head in. Why were they so bothered by my personal choices?
It took me years to figure it out, and the answer came to me through reading books on social psychology: Humans, because of our evolutionary history in which survival itself was contingent on belonging to a tight-knit group, are very finely attuned to the norms of our social groups. Conforming with what others are doing brings a sense of security. Non-conformity – either our own or others – makes us feel deeply uncomfortable and insecure.
Ever been on a train at peak hour, when suddenly a drunk or mentally ill person boards, and starts talking to other passengers? You understand intuitively that the social norm when on a crowded train is to stay in your own space, avoid eye contact with others, and only speak to them if you absolutely must, for example because they're sitting on your handbag strap.
Now watch everybody in the carriage squirm as the drunk lurches up to one of them and starts to chat. They all feel uncomfortable, even though they're not the ones who are flouting social norms – it's the drunk who is.
That's exactly what happens when you decide to embrace healthful living in a sick society. You make other people feel uncomfortable, and they try everything they know to make you stop your non-conformist behaviour and fit back in with 'normal' again.
Reason # 4: Your brain is hard-wired to repeat the same behaviours, over and over again.Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel Prize for figuring out how our neurons (brain cells) store memories, found that repetition of a behaviour for just 1 hour causes the number of synaptic connections between neurons – which is the basis for long-term memory – to more than double.
What this means is that if you have been waking up in the morning for the last 20 years and having a coffee and a cigarette before you do anything else, there is literally a pathway in your brain that compels you to have a coffee and a cigarette when your first wake up.
Even when you're completely committed, on an intellectual level, to waking up and going for a brisk walk instead, followed by a healthy breakfast, trying to fight against this programmed behaviour feels like arm-wrestling with Arnold Schwarzenegger!
Reason # 5: You have limiting beliefs that hold you back from being all you can be.Many people believe that it's their fear of failure that holds them back from embracing healthful living. "What if I don't reach my weight loss target? I'll feel like a total failure." "What if I sign up for the City to Surf and I can't complete it? I'll be such a loser."
Fear of failure is a barrier to making change, but in my experience, fear of success is an even bigger barrier. Fear of success? Who would be afraid to get what they want? Lots of people, actually.
So many of my clients feel unworthy of success because of beliefs they developed in early childhood. When we've been working together long enough that they know they can trust me with their darkest thoughts, they'll confess that being sick and ill is actually more comfortable for them than feeling healthy, vital, empowered and strong.
They've lived with their self-limiting beliefs – 'I'm not good enough', 'My needs aren't as important as other people's', 'I don't deserve to have what I really want' – for so long that breaking free of those beliefs and claiming their birthright of health and happiness feels incredibly daunting.
So there they are, my top 5 reasons why embracing healthy living is so difficult. I've spent the last 20 years figuring out ways to overcome each of them, first road-testing them in my own life, and then honing them with my clients.