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Nutrition psychology: behaviour change

Research suggests, through the theory of planned behaviour that if a client perceives that suggested behaviour as positive, if their significant other also wants them to perform the behaviour and if they have perceived control over the behaviour this results in a stronger intention to engage and maintain the behaviour (Armitage 2001).

For example, if a client understands that healthy eating is going to benefit their health and their partner also wants them to eat healthily they are more likely to do it. If they feel in control of internal factors, such as ability to cook healthy foods and stop emotional eating, as well as external factors such as having lots of fresh fruit and vegetables at the local shop, this will further encourage behavioural change.

Your role in supporting your client’s behavioural change is to increase their knowledge of nutrition, but also increase their self-efficacy. This is crucial because self-efficacy is the most important concept for any type of behavioural change. If the client has confidence in their own ability to perform that behaviour, then they are more likely to do it.

You should also take into account the client’s social circle as this can have a huge influence of the client’s motivation to change behaviour and peruse a healthy diet. Social influence is interpreted as the client’s thoughts on how their friends, family, colleagues as well as society will view their behaviour. For example, speaking to your client about whether they have friends supporting their efforts to be healthier may reveal that none of the client’s friends are overweight which makes them feel ashamed and therefore more motivated to change, or alternatively when speaking about their family they may comment that obesity runs in the family and therefore it seems normal to eat like they do and not exercise.

The client’s views on what society does may also affect their motivation to change behaviour, when eating at a restaurant they may see people on other tables ordering dessert so they so the same. Controversially if the client regularly sees other people walking their children to school rather than driving, they may be more motivated to do the same.

You can measure a client’s intentions to get healthier and therefore the likelihood of the behaviour change occurring by using a questionnaire and asking the client to write a number from 1 to 10 about how strongly they agree to the statement; with 0 being extremely unlikely/disagree and 10 being extremely likely/agree.

Statements for a client desiring weight loss to answer could include;

  • I intend to lose 0.5kg per week for the next six months

0 extremely unlikely – 10 extremely likely

  • I intend to lose a total of 12kg over the next 180 days.

0 strongly agree – 10 strongly disagree

  • For me to lose 12kg over the next six months is.

0 worthless – 10 valuable

  • My family and friends think that me trying to lose 12kg is

0 not a good idea – 10 a great idea

  • For me to lose 0.5kg a week for the next six months is

0 impossible – 10 possible

  • Losing 0.5kg a week over the next month will help to lower my high cholesterol.

0 extremely unlikely – 10 extremely likely

You can review these statements and if most are marked less than six out of ten they can discuss in more detail what is directly effecting the client’s ability to become healthier. If they felt their family and friends don’t support them in losing weight, they could discuss why this is; it could be jealousy or that they won’t be able to go to the pub anymore. Once the client has identified what is preventing them, it is easier to come up with resolutions. So, the client could explain to their family that they will still go to the pub but just choose a different drink and invite them to do the same so they improve their health too.

Next it is important for you to generate a list with the client a list of factors which may support or impede healthy living behaviour change but asking the following questions.

  • What factors will enable you to lose 0.5kg per week for the next six months?

  • What factors will make it difficult to lose 0.5kg per week for the next six months?

Once these lists have been written, ways to overcome the difficulties can be discussed. For example, the client may feel they have too many work functions to eat healthily, therefore they would benefit from more information on choosing healthy options at restaurants.

It is also advised the client discuss’ their desire to lead a healthier lifestyle with friends and colleagues as research suggests then when an individual tells others about their goal to stick to a diet plan or lose weight, they are more likely to adhere to it. This is normally due to two main reasons, firstly that once a statement is made public, the client will not want to look inconsistent or fail in the public eye. Secondly, people will make more effort to support the client in their changed behaviour. Colleagues at work may move the biscuits and cakes to another area of the office or a partner may not feel upset if they only eat half a portion when they go out for dinner.

So, in order to encourage the clients behaviour change you should help the client increase their perceived control over aspects of healthy living that they find difficult.

You should also see yourself as a role model for their client. The social learning theory states that people learn a new behaviour through re-enforcement, punishment or observational learning.

So if the client observes you eating nutrient dense foods and sees that you have a healthy body, rarely gets ill and are happy then this will encourage the client to eat nutrient dense foods too.

You can also ask the client someone that they admire for their health. Whoever the client names, they should consider what behaviours they perform which ensures they are healthy. This could be something as simple as not snacking on the biscuits at work and going for a walk at lunchtime. Whether the client attempts to reproduce this behaviour is generally down to their level of self-confidence.

If the client feels comfortable to do so, they could also speak to the individual they admire and ask questions about their lifestyle so they can find out more information on how to be healthy. They could ask what they generally buy on their shopping list or what they have to curb sweet cravings.

A client may choose you as their authority figure, this is often because you are deemed not only to follow healthy choices but also be knowledgeable. You need to be aware of this and meet regularly with the client about their nutritional needs and provide credible information to them. If they client requires more in depth knowledge than you can provide they should refer them onto a Registered Dietitian.

If you are interested in further developing your coaching skills, please get in touch for upcoming CDP events.

Rachel x