Smarter Choices

For the past 30 years, my colleagues and I at the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco have conducted research showing that comprehensive lifestyle changes may reverse the progression of coronary heart disease, prostate cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, elevated cholesterol and other chronic conditions. Here's what works to make and maintain changes in nutrition and lifestyle:

You have a spectrum of choices. It's not all or nothing. To the degree you move in a healthful direction on this spectrum, you're likely to feel better, look better, lose weight and gain health. If you're trying to reverse heart disease, then you probably need to make bigger changes than someone who just wants to lose a few pounds.

Even more than feeling healthy, most people want to feel free and in control. If I tell people, "Eat this and don't eat that," or "Don't smoke," they immediately want to do the opposite. Make choices to empower yourself.

Eating bad food does not make you a bad person. Food is just food. The language of behavioral modification often has a moralistic quality to it that turns off a lot of people (like "cheating" on a diet).

How you eat is as important as what you eat. If I eat mindlessly while watching television, I get all of the calories and none of the pleasure. Instead, if I eat mindfully, paying attention and savoring what I'm eating, smaller portions of food can be exquisitely satisfying.

Joy of living is a much better motivator than fear of dying. Considering your mortality is too scary; prevention is too boring: "Am I going to live longer or is it just going to seem longer?" When you change your diet and lifestyle, you feel better and look better.

What we do eat is at least as important as what we don't eat. There are at least a thousand substances that have anticancer, anti-heart-disease and antiaging properties in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products and some fish; therefore we feel abundance rather than deprivation.

^ It's important to address the deeper issues that underlie our behaviors. Information is not usually sufficient to motivate lasting changes because loneliness, stress and depression are epidemic in our culture. If we address these deeper issues, then it becomes easier for people to sustain changes in their behaviors.