The vast majority of us aren't born plant-based. Something triggered an AHA moment for some, while for others, it was a long and reflected journey. Even after transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, we still end up making up less than a few percent of the population. Estimates suggest that 7-8% of Canadians are vegetarian and a much lower percentage of them are vegan. Having been a meat eater for most of my life, I can still relate to the thought processes and cognitive dissonance that would create resistance for anyone thinking of making a transition towards plant-predominance. I've been a plant-based advocate for almost a decade, and my transition towards a plant-exclusive diet was, in my opinion, quick, having transitioned fully in about 18 months. « Plant-based » is an umbrella term, including all forms of vegetarianism, veganism and flexitarianism (a term used to describe people who eat a plant-predominant diet, but do include small amounts of animal products). When people tell me: « I could never stop eating meat », I reply: « You don’t have to ». Never let being perfect get in the way of being better.
My Personal Journey
Lifestyle change can be motivated by intrinsic factors, or extrinsic ones. Acquiring new habits must align with one's beliefs and core values. It has to be who you want to be. I wanted to be healthy, and after having went through a few medical scares, I recognized that my nutrition had to change. This intrinsic motivation was enough for me. I saw my daughters suffer from the same health issues that had plagued me and the pain I felt while witnessing this far surpassed the friction that a lifestyle overhaul would cause. This highly motivated me to change with a sense of urgency. Within 18 months, I had transitioned fully and the rest of my family soon followed. Would I have changed if my health challenges hadn't arose? Would I have spontaneously stumbled across the scientific data backing the whole food plant-based diet if I hadn't been searching for it? And if so, would I've been as receptive to hearing what the science had to say? Who knows, maybe not.
« CHANGE HAPPENS WHEN THE PERCEIVED BENEFITS SURPASS THE PERCEIVED FRICTION THAT THE CHANGE WOULD CAUSE »
The Process Of Change
Change is a complex topic, with different stages marking where someone is located on the spectrum of change. Pre-contemplation, the first stage, describes someone not even thinking about change, totally unaware that there may be benefits to modifying a particular behavior or habit. Contemplation is the second stage, where some will start reflecting on the possible benefits of modifying a specific behavior. Here, they're open to hearing or consuming new information about the pros and cons of pursuing the behavior in question or adopting the new one. This phase marks a pivotal point where there's an openness to learning new concepts that will be balanced against intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to change, as well as the friction caused by the new set of behaviors. When the cognitive pros outweigh the cons, most will start moving towards phase 3: preparation. In this phase, a plan is formulated, barriers and obstacles are anticipated and the person chooses a date and moves towards the action phase. The action phase is where the magic happens, and one must be made aware that relapse and failure is a normal part of change. Barriers, curve balls and uncontrollable variables will cause relapse, but that simply provides a way to find more innovative solutions and to get better at anticipating difficulties next time around. Some studies suggest that people will cycle through action and relapse more than 7 times before finally succeeding at maintaining a behavioral change over the long term. One quickly notices that many factors influence one's capacity and desire to change, and they all must be carefully considered to understand which ones weigh more and tip the balance towards change.
The Variables To Consider
When looking at my personal journey of transitioning to a plant-based diet, I can recall the challenges that I faced, as well as the different variables that created friction and resistance and kept me from transitioning faster. Resistance in dietary modification is already a well-studied field and I'll summarize some of the common denominators that have been identified in creating resistance.
Lack of education
Throughout recent history, vegetarian diets have been mislabeled as irresponsible and vegan diets as dangerous. Concerns about nutrient deficiencies have most-certainly kept many people from adopting this dietary pattern. This is why I want to share the most recent scientific recommendations, as well as share reliable information from leaders in the field, in order to spread the message to the general population. Scientific guidelines and expert consensus often lag behind for years after peer-reviewed studies get published. Much still has to be done to inform the masses that plant-based diets reduce mortality and the incidence of many chronic diseases. The science is out there, but seems to fall on deaf ears. Food guides must also reflect the new science, which is precisely why I'm very proud of the recently published 2019 Canadian Food Guide that has come a long way to showcase these "new" scientific findings. Other variables, like age, sex and level of education have all been associated with different levels of resistance towards eating plant-based and eating healthier in general.
For a behavioral change to succeed, the perceived benefits must outweigh the barriers. Barriers create friction and make change more difficult. Many of the barriers creating resistance to change are practical in nature. The time needed to cook a healthy meal, in contrast to the convenience of fast food might be perceived as a barrier. The need for meal planning and preparation can easily become a hassle for those who live a busy lifestyle. Basic skills required in the kitchen in order to prepare food efficiently aren't always transferred to the next generation, and consist of an important limiting factor in adopting a plant-based diet. Tastebuds get "dumbed-down" by a highly processed diet, and the palatability and taste of plant foods might not measure up to the expectations of those hoping to transition towards more plants. There's also a perception that eating healthier costs more, when there's easy and clever ways to eat healthy whole foods on a budget. Many people aren't aware of the variety and availability of plant-based options, whether whole or processed, like popular plant-based meat substitutes.
Modern day cultural stereotypes are also still pervasive in today's society and although we've come a long way, we still associate meat with muscles and with being strong and healthy. We still associate veganism with frailty, but much progress has been made to destroy these old stereotypes. Seeing elite athletes thrive on a plant-based diet was all the motivation I needed!
Lack Of Intrinsic Or Extrinsic Motivation
Many people simply believe that their current diet is perfectly fine and that there's no need to change. In today's modern medical system, minimal attention is given to preventative medical practices and if there's no problem, then there's nothing to fix. Many don't recognize that chronic illnesses can fly under the radar for years, even decades, before they start to cause preventable physical signs and symptoms. This is another important reason why we must educate the public about the future implications and consequences of choices made today. We have built a medical system focused on disease treatment instead of disease prevention and I believe this is a main issue contributing to the current chronic disease epidemic. As a doctor in practice since 2007, I have an almost 2 month wait for appointments, even while working countless hours every week. I can't invest as much time in prevention as I'd like, since I'm simply too overwhelmed by the number of people already sick that need urgent care.
My Tips To Reduce Resistance
My first tip to reduce resistance would be to simply roll with it. The reasons that keep people from modifying their health behaviors are very complex and our approach has to be personalized and tailored specifically to their stage of change. Someone in pre-contemplation will benefit from us being non-judgmental and is more likely to respond to information given in a digestible and respectful way. Building a meal plan for someone in this stage would be an inefficient use of finite resources. Extremist or aggressive views tend to turn off most people in this stage of change, and we'll often find that people who are attacked for having specific lifestyle habits that don't align with ours will retreat and quickly return to the behavioral patterns that are comfortable and most familiar to them, even if they're unhealthy. These are the behaviors we're trying to change and the wrong approach with these people may backfire. Simply encouraging them to keep an open mind and reflecting about change should be the goal for people in pre-contemplation. People who are contemplating change will benefit from getting educated on the matters at hand. Articles, studies and evidence based recommendations are quite useful in this group and may help to build intrinsic motivation. Some will be motivated by health, some by living a more eco-friendly life and some will change out of compassion for animals, but that's for them to decide, not us. For those who are prepared to change, or have already started, they need positive reinforcement, support and resources, and no longer need convincing. They can benefit greatly from help with anticipating challenges ahead and pre-planning for them. Those who have tried to change, but failed, need us to normalize this as a normal part of the process, and and encouraged to take the valuable lessons learned and apply them the next time around. Only when the perceived benefits of changing outweigh the potential barriers will we have maximized the potential of succeeding in immediate change and the potential of sustaining it over the long term. This applies to all types of behaviors, including dietary modification.
Imposing our dietary views on others is a truly inefficient way of creating and motivating change. Roll with their resistance and understand that even the most unhealthy behaviors require careful planning and customization of a transitional plan. Even smokers know that smoking is unhealthy, and it's often an ineffective strategy to bombard them with the risks involved with tobacco consumption (they already know it's unhealthy), or thinking that we can scare them into stopping. Change takes education, time, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, patience, and a whole lot of lessons learned from failure. Be kind and patient and adapt your approach to wherever they (or you) are on the spectrum of change.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior.
Thanks so much for reading!
Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱
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