When I first started teaching people about eating real food, I thought it would be as simple as sharing new information like this:
“Hey, did you know that too much sugar is bad for your health? And did you also know that sugar lurks not only in soft drinks and candy, but also in condiments and starchy foods that form the basis of most health-conscious eaters’ diets?
Isn’t that the most exciting thing you’ve ever heard? You can actually control your appetite and sugar cravings by not only eating less white sugar, but also by eating less of this sugar-in-disguise. You can even get started today!”
I am slowly reaching a point where I can chuckle about just how naïve I was for thinking this would elicit sustainable improvements in people’s eating habits.
I was appealing to the commonly held belief that human behaviour is the result of rational decision-making. But when I started poking my nose into the behavioural science literature, it became clear that our emotions play a more powerful role in how we make decisions.
In other words, we don’t make decisions with our heads. We make them with our hearts.
There is no better example of this than smoking. Any smoker will tell you that they would love to quit. It’s not as if they don’t understand the negative effects that smoking will have on their health, yet they proceed in spite of this knowledge.
Same goes for overeating, overspending, infidelity, texting at the wheel, and so on.
In this animated video, Dan Heath (co-author of the book Switch) describes the behaviour change process using the analogy of an elephant, a rider, and a path as described in Jonathan Haidt’s famous book, The Happiness Hypothesis.
Psychologists know that there are two systems in our brains: the rational system and the emotional system. A good analogy is to think of your brain as a human rider atop an elephant.
The rider represents the rational system responsible for planning, problem solving, analyzing, and deciding what action to take.
The elephant represents the emotional system, which provides all the power for the journey.
What if they disagree?
The rider can try and lead or even drag the elephant, but if these two ever disagree, which one do you think will win?
The power imbalance between the rider and the elephant is exactly what makes adopting new behaviours so difficult.
It explains why we can rattle off ten sound reasons for passing on popcorn at the movies, yet still wind up with an extra large bag as well as a soft drink they practically include for free.
If you want this duo to head in a new direction you also need to think about the path, which represents the external environment. You are more likely to complete a journey if you can shorten the distance to your destination and remove any obstacles in the way.
So if you want to lead any change, the following three things are essential:
- Direct the rider: Provide knowledge of how to get to the destination.
- Motivate the elephant: Tap into emotion.
- Shape the path: Allow for easy progress.
Eat Real Food Academy now speaks to the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path
My initial teaching style was directed predominately at the rider (and so are most programs designed to help you eat healthier). I taught about what real food is, why to eat it, and how to decide if a food makes the cut rather than being lured by exaggerated marketing claims. The information is still highly relevant, but I now know that information by itself is never enough.
Motivating the elephant is crucial, which is why we have our Eat Real Food Academy participants spend as much time as they need at the outset of the course on an exercise called “Get Clear on Your WHY.” It’s designed to provide clarity and purpose behind their unique reasons for wanting to take their health to the next level. We know you want to look good naked (LGN), but there is always a deeper emotion associated with any superficial goal. There’s a feeling you’re longing for (e.g. confidence, empowerment) and if you can tap into that desired feeling, the elephant and the rider will have far fewer disagreements.
In today’s fake food world, I think we can all agree that the path is pretty rugged. But paving the road to your destination is more within our control than most of us realize. We just have to know what to look for. That’s why we teach ERFA participants how to:
- Set up their kitchens
- Create a real food meal plan
- Put systems of accountability into place
- Make the most of their cooking time
- Talk to friends and family about their new choices
- And more!
It is my mission to help people make permanent, lasting, and sustainable improvements to their eating habits through the Eat Real Food Academy online course. Registration is open from May 22-31, and the course begins on June 2, 2015.
Why wait another season to feel the best you’ve ever felt?
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