Three Ways to Overcome Mental Hurdles to Making Real Dietary Change

Stacy Spensley is a healthy life coach who supports overwhelmed men and women to integrate sustainable, step-by-step diet, mindset, and lifestyle changes so they can feel awesome and kick ass at life. She is professionally bossy and an ardent supporter of the Oxford comma, and you’ll easily find her on Twitter and Facebook. She co-wrote the Official Guide to October Unprocessed, and if this post resonates with you, try Stacy’s free 5-day jumpstart e-course.

Bungee Jumper

My job is awesome: to help people improve their diets and their lives – and not just in October. People resist dietary changes (whether unprocessed, healthier, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc.) for many reasons, so I wanted to bring up common ones I see in my work. You also get action steps to move past these roadblocks and stay on your path to health and happiness.

These may not apply to you, but even so, they may help you understand where someone else is coming from. You have to start from where you are, not where you want to be.

Hurdle #1: Deprivation

Food isn’t just fuel for our bodies – it’s our culture, tradition, and reward structure.

Thoughts that keep you stuck: Many people approach dietary changes thinking: “I can’t.” Whether it’s holiday food, happy hour with friends, or dessert, when faced with that prospect, it’s no wonder so many people say they’ll start tomorrow.

A diet is simply the way you eat. When you think of it as a temporary way of eating to lose weight you set up restrictive limits that make eating a battle of willpower versus taste.

Re-frame: You CAN eat anything you want, but you CHOOSE not to eat things that don’t make you feel good.

Instead try “crowding out” by adding in more nutrient-dense foods. Set goals like eating fresh fruit every day, having a salad with lunch, or adding one more vegetable to dinner each night. By filling up on healthful options, you’ll have less room for non-nutritious choices.

What’s the very first step you can take to add healthier food to your diet?

Hurdle #2: Time Management

Thoughts that keep you stuck: “Cooking takes too much time.” We’re so conditioned (and told by advertisements) that spending more than 20 minutes in the kitchen is a waste, so people happily toss a salt-bomb in the microwave and are proud for saving time.

Re-frame: View time spent preparing healthful food as an investment in your health and happiness.

Think of ways to prep elements ahead of time. When I make breakfast I often throw a big pot of grains or beans on the stove to simmer away while I eat and shower. They cool as I get ready, and are ready to reheat for lunch or dinner. The rest are split between fridge and freezer to use later.

Menu-planning can also be really helpful. Set aside 20-30 minutes in your calendar (“If it’s not scheduled, it’s not real.” – Marie Forleo) once a week to save you time and decision-making energy each day.

What is your biggest struggle with food and time management? In a perfect world, how would your meal planning look?

Hurdle #3: Fear of Failure

This is the most common fear I see, and it’s the most complex.

If you never start, you can’t fail! It’s safer and more comfortable to sit on the couch and eat bonbons than to try something and risk failure. It sounds melodramatic and silly, but it’s often true.

Thoughts that keep you stuck: What if I don’t lose weight? What if I’m hungry? What if it’s too hard? What if my friends make fun of me? What if people find out I don’t actually have it all together? (Where my perfectionists at? Holla!)

What to do instead: Approach a lifestyle change with curiosity, not judgment. Like Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed, I have merely found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Answer these three questions:

  1. Why do you want to make a change?
  2. What’s keeping you from doing it?
  3. How is it serving you to stay where you are?

For #3, I often hear, “It isn’t.” That’s not true, however. Not changing is also a choice. Eating the same way, even if it makes you feel unwell, is comfortable and familiar. Perhaps it allows you to avoid an imagined confrontation with your partner or kids about making dietary changes. Or maybe it lets you eat bonbons instead of facing the fact that you’re not dealing with your stress level or emotions very well right now.

Again, approach this exercise with curiosity, not judgment. You can’t make a change if you don’t know where you’re starting from.

Have you confronted any of these roadblocks yourself? Have you overcome them? What is your biggest obstacle to making healthy changes, whether going unprocessed or otherwise?

Switzerland/Extreme Bungee Jump” © 2007 Carla MacNeil, used under creative commons license.

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37 Responses to Three Ways to Overcome Mental Hurdles to Making Real Dietary Change

  1. Kyra Williams October 19, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    One of the most helpful things I’ve ever done has been to be very goal oriented. My goal is to get really strong and I want to achieve that goal so bad! So whenever it’s time to eat I ask myself if this food is gonna help me get to that goal.

    I also like what you had to say about adding things in.

    • Stacy Spensley October 20, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

      Wonderful point, Kyra. I would add that they should be achievable goals! For example, if you want to start running from nothing, your first goal isn’t “run a marathon” (even if you do eventually), your first goal might be “run 1 mile without stopping.”

      Thank you for adding to the conversation!

  2. Cookin' Canuck October 19, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    These are great tips, Stacey! For me, I always failed as soon as I saw a little bit of success. It was as though I was afraid of succeeding. It was a psychological hurdle I had to overcome before being able to move on and make significant changes.

    • Stacy Spensley October 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

      Thanks, Dara, and congratulations on your own health transformation!

      Great point, self-sabotage is a HUGE hurdle for many people. Fear of success is up there with fear of failure, really. We like staying “safe” since change means unknown outcome, which is scary! That’s definitely another important area I focus on with clients.

  3. Debi October 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    My re-frame for myself when I chose to ditch a lot of the unhealthy foods (refined and processed) was I am making a change for health. If I told myself I was going on a diet to lose weight, I knew it wouldn’t work. “Diet” has such a negative connotation in our society because we associate it with deprivation when really a diet is just what we eat. Once I got this in my head, making good choices followed in line. Losing a few pounds in the process was just a bonus. 😀

    • Stacy Spensley October 18, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

      Beautiful, Debi. I can’t add anything to that, so thank you for sharing!

  4. sunny October 18, 2012 at 6:22 am #

    Stacy, over the years we have given up (or made concience decisions to retain) certain foods that do not pass the kitchen test. We are pretty torn on a particular chocolate hazelnut spread. A while ago we noticed that the 2nd ingredient was palm oil and declared it a non food and luckly found a good substitute at Trader joes. They have since discontinued that product and “N” has made its way back into our cupboard. I hate that we love it so much that we disreguard our standards for its velvety chocolate spreadability yummness. Help my family by suggesting a replacement or recipe for a simular condiment.

  5. Brighid October 17, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

    Biggest time challenge: putting something in the “food bank” as it were for when *I’m* out of commission. What do you do when all you can make (and not very well at that) is green jello?

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

      Brighid, to clarify, because you don’t know HOW to cook, or you don’t have the energy to cook? I want to make sure I answer what you’re actually asking. =)

      • Brighid October 18, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

        Too sick! And unfortunately, there’s too much that I *have* to do right now. At least today, it was different highly-processed to get through the day. :(

        • Stacy Spensley October 18, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

          This won’t work now, but in the future, it could work to stock your own unprocessed frozen dinners – soup is a perfect example.

          You can also buy prepped food that isn’t processed. Better grocery store delis, pre-cut fruit, the grab-n-go case… Or if all you can do is eat cereal, at least make sure it’s unprocessed cereal.

  6. Desiree Nielsen October 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Stacy, what a spot-on post. Health professionals can talk until we are blue in the face about what we should and shouldn’t be eating but until we understand why and how we eat we will continue to get lost. It’s time to move upstream both in self-awareness and awareness in how our current food supply makes it just so bloody hard to make good choices sometimes. Building awareness and understanding that we have the power to actively make better choices is liberating.

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

      Thanks for your thoughts, Desiree. My biggest lesson has been that it’s often not WHAT we eat, it’s WHY we eat and HOW. That’s why I call myself a healthy life coach instead of a health coach – so many of my clients know the “what,” but need support around the other two. Great insights, and always refreshing to hear from an RD. =)

  7. Julie October 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    I have just been really surprised at how often I’ve messed up since deciding to do this October challenge! I thought I ate pretty well but it’s been good for me to see that there are lots of times where I don’t even think about how processed something is. And your post is great for me today because I was thinking maybe I should just give up since I keep messing up (in small ways, but still!)!

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

      Go, Julie, go! When are you “messing up,” and what’s the lesson? Is it when you’re stressed, or in a hurry, etc? Identifying that can help you avoid the same circumstances in the future. You’ve got this!

  8. Megan October 17, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    I read this and passed it on to my coworkers that are currently on this journey with me. One resounding response came through, “Wow! That chick sounds just like you!” I am still deciding what my career will be once I finish college and they have been pushing me to look at becoming a Registered Dietian. I like your approach much better, it fits me. Thank you for providing great information I can share with my friends and take into account in my own journey to go to a plant based diet. :)

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

      Megan, I actually have a theater degree and looked into going back to school to become an RD. It didn’t feel like the right fit to me, but when I found health coaching, a light went on. If you want to hear about that experience, I’m happy to talk to you about it!

      You’re so welcome; I’m happy that it resonated with you and appreciate you sharing with your friends!

      • Megan October 18, 2012 at 6:34 am #

        I would love to hear more!

        • Stacy Spensley October 19, 2012 at 7:16 am #

          Megan, shoot me an email – stacy {at} centerstagewellness {dot} com. =)

  9. Ashley October 17, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    Once I started reading ingredients, I realized I wasn’t being deprived of foods when I skipped processed items, because they aren’t even food! As soon as I stopped viewing them as food, I stopped missing them.

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

      Great point, Ashley. I had a client earlier this year who suspiciously asked, “You’re not going to make me give up Diet Coke, are you?” And I told her no, of course not. A month later she stopped drinking it because it didn’t taste good anymore.

  10. Amanda October 17, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Great points! Sometime we build up this overwhelming idea of change in to this monstrous goal. If we break it down and make it simple its not so bad. Baby steps!

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 11:56 am #


    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

      Exactly! I often use the phrase, “Progress, not perfection.” It applies to so many areas of life.

  11. Sheila October 17, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    Great post with useful tips for anybody to apply to their lifestyles.
    Eating healthy will pay off BIG as you age. It is like making deposits into your health account:)

  12. Emily October 17, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    All three of these difficulties definitely apply to me! Thank you for the encouragement :) My biggest struggle is feeling like I have to do it perfectly if I’m going to do it at all. A good conversation with a friend yesterday made me realize that any change for the better is good, even if it doesn’t put me where I want to be. The example we talked about is – okay, so I planned to make meatloaf and baked potatoes but ran out of time. that doesn’t mean I failed and should just fall back on p*sta-r*ni again. I can boil some pasta and brown the ground beef and open a jar of sauce, and it’s a quick meal that is better for us, even if it isn’t as good as I’d wanted to do. It was a great re-frame for me, gave me perspective. I love the Einstein quote; I am putting that on my fridge to remind me!

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 11:47 am #

      You’re so not alone, Emily. And yes, the all-or-nothing mentality can be a huge trap (as a perfectionist, it’s something I deal with myself). So glad the post resonated with you and keep on keepin’ on!

  13. Mary Hall October 17, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    I was so thrilled to read the very first point, as I’ve been telling that to myself since I (recently) went to gluten-free. Every time I want to moan about how much I miss French bread, or want a hamburger on a bun, I stop myself and think, “Well, I COULD eat it…but the ramifications will be…” and I mentally revisit how my body deals with gluten. Knowing that I have a decision to make and knowing the results of that decision make it feel much more powerful–and easier–for me.

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 11:36 am #

      Yes yes yes! Feeling empowered in making those choices is so key. Good luck on your gluten-free journey; there are so many great resources out there now, too. Thanks so much for sharing your insight.

  14. Christina October 17, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    I’ve found a HUGE joy in cooking (and baking!) and will happily take the time to prepare something healthy, delicious and unprocessed if I know it’ll make me, and those eating with me, full and satisfied. I prepared baked eggplant parmesan and salad for a date last night…it was a sneaky way to get him to eat a vegetarian meal, and I was happy to continue eating unprocessed! Food IS a culture…but you can always adapt it to fit YOUR lifestyle.

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Absolutely! That’s what most of my work is – we all know what we need to do, it’s a matter of finding ways to fit it into our lives.

      Your date-night dinner sounds delicious, too.

  15. Cheryl October 17, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    Thanks, Stacy! One of my favorite messages from “Hungry for Change” is about changing my thought process from “I want that, but can’t have it” to “I can have that, but don’t want it.” This, for me, has made all the difference in how I look at food. A nutritionist once diagnosed me with “disordered eating” and I’ve come to realize that changing my relationship with food is the only way I can make changes that last. I won’t do it if I feed deprived! And, time management is key. If I haven’t planned and prepared my food, I’m at the mercy of the good-hearted junk providers at work, which is my biggest obstacle.

    • Stacy Spensley October 17, 2012 at 8:09 am #

      Cheryl, I LOVE that re-frame! I do a lot of work with clients about “can’t/won’t” and my very favorite pair, “should/could.” You’re absolutely right that you have to start with your relationship with food, not the food itself.

      Great work learning all this about yourself and making changes. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience.


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