“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” So the saying goes and I had it thrown at me by a family member who was trying to justify a different family member’s refusal to make meaningful change to improve his health. While it’s a familiar refrain, it’s definitely not true. I had a student change her diet to completely plant-based after having a heart attack at age 56; she had a severe health scare and it was the launchpad for her to eat better. Thousands of others like her have done the same thing; they’ve seen their health declining or threatened and have effected meaningful change to stop that threat. The aforementioned family member, however has had open heart surgery, requires oxygen on an almost constant basis, is overweight and still partakes in fast food, eats high salt foods and rarely allows a vegetable to pass his lips. What makes one person embrace change in a way that is going to improve their life while another, despite all the evidence indicating they should, stays mired in their unhealthy ways?
Reading various articles on what makes people change didn’t answer the question definitively but it did give me some insight. Change comes about when someone perceives a need for that difference in their life. It could be something as simple as needing a bigger (or smaller house) or something as grand as a career change after 15+ years. Someone sees that the status quo isn’t acceptable and they make strides to introduce upheaval. Desire or wanting also play a factor. If someone wants something badly enough they usually take steps to achieve it. What’s interesting is that both the desire and the need are the result of some type of anxiety, some unrest in one’s life, but leaving that status quo also produces anxiety. Change will happen if one type of stress is greater than the other, if the need to leave the status quo overwhelms the uncomfortableness that results from playing it safe.
When it comes to changing one’s life for health reasons, a couple of things come into play. The pharmaceutical industry has done a bully job of convincing the American public that all their ailments can be cured, resolved, lessened or attenuated with a pill. Watch any prime time television program and you are likely to hear the familiar refrain of, “Ask your doctor if ___ drug is right for you.” Doctors take classes on pharmacology, not nutrition (or very few do) and thus are very comfortable writing a prescription for blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol medications, for example, however very few are comfortable prescribing a whole food plant-based diet and assuming a posture of watchful waiting. In their defense there are any number of things that cause them to write a prescription: doctors are trained to DO something, not watch and wait and since plant based diets aren’t considered standard of care (yet!,) in today’s litigious climate if a doctor has a patient with a potentially deadly condition and they don’t do something with rapid effect and the patient is hurt or dies, the doctor is in a lot of trouble. The end result of this is that many people come to their doctor expecting that they can be cured with a simple pill.
The second thing coming into play with health changes can be that many people view diseases like diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and cancer to be maladies that are either inevitable or out of their control. It’s easy to see why: those 4 consistently make the Centers for Disease Control’s top 10 leading causes of death. And with our 2/3 of our population being overweight or obese, it becomes common, almost expected, to know someone affected by one of these. When an entire population believes that being afflicted with one or more of these is inescapable, individually we stop believing we can affect the course of our health. And if the stroke or heart attack is inevitable, then why not enjoy the path to get there (in the form of cheeseburgers or other highly palatable, processed food)? It’s going to happen no matter what I do so I don’t need to change (goes the thinking).
The tragedy in that type of thinking is that it casts the person as a victim, but in fact, when it comes to your health, you have the power to control much of your body’s destiny. You do have to do that one, not so little thing…change. Changing how you eat can be easy, it can be difficult but a lot of it has to do with your mindset. If you focus on all the things you can’t do, all the things you can’t eat, eating a whole foods, plant-based diet will be a hardship. But if you look at it as an adventure, as a gift you are giving yourself and allow yourself the freedom to explore the myriad of options, you can thrive and be grateful you took the risk and allowed yourself to metamorphosis into a new, healthy, happy person.