Have you tried to get your patients to change their eating habits or their diet and couldn’t get them to succeed? Were they confused and unsure of what the right thing was to eat? You are not alone! Most patients I work with want to eat healthy and make lifestyle changes, but they don’t know how.
A 62-year-old, single college professor (Mr. P) came in to my practice with insomnia. When I looked at his diet, it consisted of donuts for breakfast, fast food for lunch and dinner and sweets and sodas in between.
I’m often asked why I got extra training and incorporate nutrition counseling as part of my work with patients. The answer is easy; it wasn’t until I was able to create a clear, simple and effective nutritional guideline that I observed significant changes in my patients’ health. In my observation, the key is to make changes in a way that they become part of a “new normal,” not just a temporary fix.
Negative, confusing, conflicting and lots of “can’t have” messages bombard our country and we end up feeling either guilty or like a failure when it comes to eating healthy. It took me a decade to develop a method that is positive and effective in promoting change in eating habits and lifestyle. What I learned is a very simple method: focus on what to do/eat, and not on what not to do or eat. Simple! Right? Well…easier said than done. This approach requires a shift in thinking from the practitioner and patient. It is your job to inspire patients to want to change, give them ideas, choices and empower them to take actions. This is not a small job, but the reward is very fulfilling. My formula invites you to look at the patients as if they are doing everything they can to improve their health, so with that in mind, here is the magic formula that has worked for me.
The first thing I told Mr. P was to add some protein to his breakfast, I gave him some simple ideas like protein shakes he could drink on his way to work. I also suggested he add one vegetable a day to his meals.
Adding foods that improve the quality of the patients’ diet gives them something to work with immediately. This offers choices, and something concrete “to do” and “foods to add” to their routine; avoid leaving them with a “gap” or at a loss for what to do or eat.
Inspiring the patient to want to make changes requires you to be truthful and clear about your vision, and the patient must be on board with the plan. When I initially assess a patient’s nutrition, I’m looking for what is missing, not what kind of “junk food” they are eating. My assumption is that they just don’t know how to eat better. I work on filling the gap by suggesting food that will improve the quality of their diet and feel better.
Education and sharing my vision with the patient is very important for us to become partners, working toward the same goals. It builds confidence and empowerment to take concrete actions; take an active role in working towards real changes. When the patient participates, and is on board with the practitioner, the work for both is easier, more fulfilling and more effective, leading to a solid partnership, avoiding judgment or disappointment. It also removes the idea of non-compliant patients. They want to do the right thing; it is up to you to teach them how.
The second thing I asked Mr. P to do was to substitute unhealthy foods with better choices, like replacing sweets snacks with nuts and soda with sparking water.
Replace old, unhealthy eating habits and foods with new healthy choices. If you take something away, replace it with better options. It is crucial to recognize, acknowledge and consider the challenges they face. If you say: “don’t eat sweets!” they are left with a gap. They will think: “what do I eat?” It is hard to let go of old habits, especially when it comes to foods: from textures to flavors, from convenience to rituals. It’s much easier to replace than give up unhealthy foods. For example, for those who love oatmeal, I suggest they replace it with mashed or puréed cauliflower. Instead of asking patients to stop eating something, I tell them what to eat instead.
It works like magic!
An interesting phenomenon occurs when patients start exploring alternative ways of fulfilling their food desires, needs and preferences. It shifts their way of thinking about food and nutrition. They start questioning old habits, which causes an amazing shift; a “non-compliant” patient becomes “in charge” of making the changes needed to improve their health. From this point on, they will do anything you ask, and they will talk their family and friends into making changes as well! When a patient feels hopeful about health, they can’t help it but share it with others; they become an advocate. The impact of this process is far-reaching and ultimately very impactful!
I kept suggesting foods for Mr. P to add and replace in his diet. He was able to bring in many nutrient rich foods and replace unhealthy ones. His depression improved. He had more energy. He lost weight. Finally, I asked him to let go of grains. He didn’t even blink; all he needed was help identifying these foods. He wanted to eat better and be healthier!
In the last step, let your patients know what else they can to do, what they need to let go in order to achieve further improvements. Your job is to guide them to higher levels of wellness. When they are ready, take them to the next step. By the time I tell patients to stop eating certain foods, they hardly notice. The best part is that in this process, they learned and experienced for themselves the impact of eating well.
When the patients have positive experiences, through compassion and clear guidance, it opens their minds to new possibilities. Hope is powerful. It helps the healing process. Most patients are bombarded with judgment and negative messages about their inadequacies, inefficiencies and shortcomings, they lose track of their power to make effective changes. Your guidance gives them skills to get out of old patterns and refresh their minds with new ideas; leading them to fresh experiences. It is up to you to remind them of their own natural healing powers.
Treating patients with a new paradigm focusing on a positive, non-judgmental attitude can inspire, empower, and influence changes that might otherwise seem impossible under negativity. When we inspire changes out in the world, we are also changed. We become better practitioners, clinicians and better advocates for our patients. I thrive on this energy and it gives me purpose and meaning. Stepping outside of my world, looking for bigger questions and seeking broader answer is what keeps me going. Fulfill your destiny as humans, as practitioners, and as spiritual beings through a positive approach.