If my house was burning down, I would run back inside to save my bike. I mastered exercise habits early on in my life. I was an angstful teen who would bike it off on long rides across the California hills. Exercise was how I coped. Lucky for me, as most coping techniques that people find for themselves are not so healthy and my exercise habit has persisted ever since. I made major changes to my diet in my twenties, going to a plant-based diet, learning to cook properly and quitting sugar entirely. Next, I dialed in big productivity and anti-anxiety habits for myself and then revamped my sleep habits, going from an entrenched night owl to a bubbly morning lark. Now I mostly focus on understanding emotional habits and methods for untangling limiting patterns to bring out people's best.
Each time my life changes, my lifestyle has to adjust and I adjust my habits to fit my goals. I still fall off the wagon sometimes, like when stress makes me want chocolate or when I stay up late and then suffer through some tired days full of cravings and overeating afterward. But I’m much more compassionate with myself than ever before, and I go right back to my normal daily habits. I love my vegetable garden and I'm a long-time photographer. I live in northern California.
When I started out, I was really inspired to help others and I was full of optimism that I could improve the healthcare system. I saw so many opportunities for improvement. I saw patients being diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure but the extent of their follow up care was just some medications and health education handouts about the food pyramid. I saw people diagnosed with cancer and blocked carotid arteries being scheduled for immediate surgery with no attempt to change their diet, which can often completely reverse these conditions.
At a prestigious medical center, I took on the task of implementing new health and wellness programs to help patients change their diet and lifestyles to reverse these conditions. I did some extremely cutting edge work. I got a series of innovation grants and awards, and everybody talked about how amazing this work was. These programs were going to dramatically improve health outcomes. They were going to save lives.
But the patients didn’t actually use my programs very much. In fact, they didn’t really use the programs that were considered to be the most prestigious or best selling either. Even patients whose lives were at stake, who would die if they didn’t stop eating so much fat or quit smoking or start walking every day, didn’t make a lot of change in their behavior. And many of them did die. My father was one of them, dying long before his time, when his body couldn’t sustain his lifestyle any longer. I was profoundly affected by this.
I became a behavioral scientist to learn why and to figure out how to help people who found themselves at this crossroads. Why is it so hard to lose weight and keep it off? Why is it so hard to change your health and your life for the better? Why do we repeat the same behaviors over and over again when we really want to change and the stakes are high?
Why could I not permanently change some of my old, entrenched behaviors that plagued me?
It’s clearly not for lack of motivation
Every patient I’ve ever worked with dearly wants to live long enough to see their grandchildren get married. Everyone wants to improve their own health and to live with more vitality, to feel a spring in their step every day.
It’s not for lack of knowing what to do
Most people know pretty much what they need to do first. Stop drinking so much beer, stop finishing off the ice cream, stop staying up late watching Netflix. It doesn’t seem very fun. They try repeatedly.. and fail repeatedly. They get discouraged and lose hope. Then they get inspired to try again.. Only to slip back into old habits again in a depressing cycle of struggling attempts at change.
My father went through this pattern. He finally just gave up. After much failure to make any real change in his lifestyle, he both lived in denial and resigned himself to living out the rest of his shortened life by enjoying his vices. His children are the ones who were most affected by his inability to stick to better habits. He never met any of his grandchildren.
What does it take to change engrained lifestyle habits you’ve been using all your life?
What techniques actually do work? What tools are helpful? What kind of support is strong enough to sustain someone through and beyond this process?
Research over the past two decades has revealed a lot of these answers.
We now understand so much more about how the brain learns and forms habits, the key components of mastering new skills and rewiring what doesn’t serve us. Eating behavior researchers know how long we remember accurately what we ate, why electric lights trigger desire for a late night snack, how the design of a restaurant menu can make us overeat and much, much more. We know what types of interfaces keep people on track to reaching their goals and when people need an extra nudge to stick with it. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the most advanced eating behavior research teams on the planet, designing new food habit programs and evaluating how well each technique works. I’ve helped a number of medical centers and health-tech startups design lifestyle medicine and effective behavior change into their products. I’ve also led big weight management programs and designed coaching protocols, teaching many courses and running many weight loss support groups over the years.
I never recommend techniques that I haven’t battle tested on myself first, and used with other people as well. If it’s too unpalatable for people to actually do, it doesn’t matter if it would work if only they did it. I use behavior change techniques often in my own life, too. I’m always experimenting or improving something in my lifestyle. I rely on science to prove what works and on personal experience to know how it feels.
I’ve spent my life with people who are trying hard to change their eating habits for the better. I understand what it feels like. You’ll never hear me say something unrealistic like “You just need to learn to say no when someone offers you a piece of cake..” or “Just start getting some exercise every day”. I know how hard it is to do these things, I know how much failure hurts and I know how much the simple act of caring does to help someone make real change.
The best things you can do for yourself to quit dieting and change the direction of your journey towards vibrant health are to:
- Get a master plan based on the science of what actually works to change your behavior
- Get a coach to help you hack your habits
- Join a group of people changing the same things you are.
These three things will put you on the path of massive improvements to your health and vitality. We can do this together. I hope you'll join me.