Three Ways to Overcome Mental Hurdles to Making Real Dietary Change

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.

About the Author

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.

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Desiree Nielsen
October 17, 2012 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.

October 17, 2012 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!)!

October 17, 2012 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. 🙂

October 18, 2012 6:34 am
Reply to  Stacy Spensley

I would love to hear more!

October 17, 2012 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.

October 17, 2012 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!

October 17, 2012 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:)

October 17, 2012 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… Read more »

Mary Hall
Mary Hall
October 17, 2012 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.

October 17, 2012 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.

October 17, 2012 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.