I’m not going to lie – it is really challenging to change your diet. If it was as easy as snapping your fingers and BOOM – you’re easily cutting back on the less healthy stuff and whipping up fabulous meals that contain a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, everyone would be doing it! But among those who DO succeed at making changes and achieving their goals, it’s definitely not just up to random chance. In my experience working with clients, these are the FIVE traits people who reach their goals have in common.
They’re open and curious about new ideas and approaches to improving their health.
At the center of many of the choices we make day to day are habits. Habit formation is an incredibly key survival mechanism that we develop as humans. Our brain helps us live, thrive, and survive by automating processes and prioritizing habit formation. A really basic example of this is breathing. Our body does this for us, without us even having to think about it. We would not be able to survive without this important automation! When the body senses a deviation from the norm, it kicks into high gear to send us an alert. For example – if a person stops breathing, the body immediately conveys to the brain that something is seriously wrong.
In a less serious example, let’s say you are in the habit of packing a lunch to take to work every morning. If you head out the door in a rush one Monday morning, you might get the ~eerie~ sense that your hands feel a little emptier than usual – this is your brain reminding you “hey! You usually have a lunchbox with you when you leave the house! Did you forget it today?!” Now, these habits and automations, by design, make our lives easier. They free up mental space for more complex tasks.
The tricky thing is, making intentional changes to improve our health often requires stepping OUTSIDE of our habitual activities and thought processes. And because our brain’s intent in going on autopilot mode is to help us – by eliminating the need to think critically about a decision or task we do all the time – you may initially feel some resistance to making these changes. This is completely normal. This is simply your body telling you, “hey, we normally do things this way and that’s the easy way to do it. Why are you doing something different today?”
It requires curiosity and an open mind to push PAST this resistance and fully embrace the idea of making changes that will improve your health and your life.
They have support people and accountability partners.
If you have a chronic disease or any condition that requires specific nutritional needs, it can feel really isolating. And this doesn’t necessarily mean isolated in the sense of living alone – you can feel incredibly isolated and alone while living with a spouse, kids, or roommates. Everyone has their own individual needs and priorities, and they may not understand the changes you are implementing in your life which prioritize you and your health.
Making changes doesn’t mean asking everyone else in your life to make changes as well, but it does mean asking them to understand, and being willing to ask for their help, if needed.
Sometimes a family member or a trusted friend can be a great support person to rely on, confide in, and share ideas with. Some people might prefer to find a community of like-minded folks (i.e. kidney disease support groups online or in person) who can empathize because they are facing the exact same challenges day to day.
A professional such as a therapist or a dietitian is also an excellent person to have in your corner when making changes. In addition to providing support and encouragement, these types of professionals also provide a level of accountability that a friend or family member may not. Working with a professional is also helpful because it eliminates the “conflict of interest” you might sense when talking to friends or family. Our family and friends want the best for us, of course, but they might struggle or feel a tiny bit uncomfortable holding us accountable when it comes to making diet changes.
The goal of a therapist or dietitian is to support YOU, your health, and your goals, without any personal feelings or agendas getting in the way. A dietitian (like me!) can help you stay accountable by regularly checking in on your progress towards your goals, reviewing food logs, and providing access to educational resources you wouldn’t have otherwise.
A final step, once a person has realized their goals, is to tell their support person/accountability partner about specific changes they intend to make, because that helps to make it feel more “real”… and this leads right into our next characteristic.
They make concrete plans and set concrete goals.
If you don’t set a goal, how do you know where you’re going? How will you know that you’ve achieved what you really intended to accomplish?
Goals should also be framed in a positive, asset-based manner, working towards an outcome to intend to achieve, rather than a consequence you hope to avoid. Saying “I want to avoid having to start dialysis” is an amazing thing to focus on! But that alone won’t get you there. What are the specific, concrete behavior changes and activities you will implement to help you get there?
A common way of thinking about goal setting is to make your goals SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. A well thought-out goal should itself be a roadmap to where you’re going. An example of a good goal is, “for the next 4 weeks, in order to help support my kidney health, I plan to find one new low-sodium recipe online each week, then grocery shop and prepare the recipe for a weeknight dinner.” At the end of the four weeks, you’ll be able to look back and say “yes, I did what I hoped to do!” or “no, that didn’t work for me” or “I kinda did it, but not entirely.”
From there – keep the same goal if it’s something you want to keep working on. Adjust it if it was too much of a reach or didn’t feel relevant to your overarching health goals. If it was too broad, break it down into smaller steps. Or pick something new altogether that better serves your needs.
People who set concrete goals for themselves (and even better, telling other people about them and/or put them down in writing) have a much greater likelihood of implementing change in their lives.
They understand the why, not just the what.
If your doctor tells you, “you need to limit your salt intake” with no additional context, you’ll probably say… “okay…. cool. I’ll work on it.” And then you’ll never limit your salt intake, because why do you need to do that? What does “limit” actually mean? How much salt is okay? And what foods have salt in them??
It’s important to know the WHY behind the WHAT.
Knowing why you’re setting out to make changes in your life is incredibly empowering. People who successfully achieve their nutrition goals feel comfortable asking for information they don’t know, so they can apply it to their own unique situation. For example, a person who gets a new kidney disease diagnosis might learn more about the “why” by asking, “what exactly is kidney disease?” “What causes it?” “How are the kidneys normally supposed to work?” “What is at stake if my kidney disease continues to get worse?”
Having a good understanding of the “why” helps provide motivation to make changes, because you understand what’s at risk if you DON’T make changes.
They don’t let fear hold them back.
It’s important to have an idea of what you’re getting into. But don’t let lingering questions hold you back from getting started.
Some people have a natural tendency to jump right in and try new things. But if you’re anything like me (i.e. you have some perfectionist tendencies), you like to do some research, have an idea of where you’re headed, maybe try to learn how other people have navigated similar situations. That’s not a bad thing! But sometimes… this can result in endless planning and never taking action. At some point you have to stop the researching and the planning and the over-planning, and just start DOING the thing you need to do.
On the flip side, some people might also feel fear and anxiety about not knowing where to start. You might feel overwhelmed by the information and knowledge you don’t yet have, the mental and emotional efforts you’ll need to put forth, the tools you don’t currently possess that seem critical to getting to where you’re going, the money you think you may need to spend.
If this is you – start small. You don’t need all the answers, all the tools, all the money, or every hour of the day to get started. Pick one small item or habit you’d like to focus on, and once you’ve determined a measure of success, boldly move forward with your plan and set it into action. Don’t be afraid to try something new… and don’t be afraid to mess up or fail! You’re only human. Don’t let fear of failure stop you from giving it a shot.
It is natural to feel fear when trying something new. Deviating from your usual, comfortable habits and patterns is undeniably challenging! But if you’re letting fear hold you back, you’re holding yourself back from reaching your full potential and realizing the changes in your life you want to see.
Which of these characteristics resonate with you? Which one sounds like something you already do, and which one do you need to work on cultivating? Comment below and let me know. — Kate, Your Kidney Dietitian