Why Change Is So Hard: Barriers to a Healthy Lifestyle

Uncover the Roadblocks to Eating Healthy

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Each year, do you find yourself failing to accomplish your New Year’s resolution to lose weight or to eat healthier, despite your best intentions? Roberta H. Anding, M.S., shares the most common barriers to changing your eating habits.

Family preparing salad together in kitchen
Achieving a healthy lifestyle through healthy eating poses challenges that actually are easy to overcome. Photo by George Rudy / Shutterstock

Time Can Be an Obstacle

According to the American Dietetic Association, 38 percent of Americans know that they should do something about their diet, but they believe that they can’t for a number of reasons. Exploring these barriers to a healthy lifestyle can help us to gain a deeper understanding of why so many Americans are overweight.

One barrier is time. In our fast-paced lifestyle, the convenience factor of fast-food and microwave dinners is all too tempting.

Although we know that home-cooked meals are the healthiest option, they are also time-consuming and not always realistic. For working mothers, meal preparation can be particularly challenging. 

In these situations, flexibility is key. Adopting an all-or-nothing attitude will mostly likely lead to failure, so instead, recognize your limitations and adjust accordingly.

“I’ve worked for 30 years and raised three children, so the challenge for me always was, ‘Can I get something nutritious on the table in a very quick fashion?'” Professor Anding said. “When my son played soccer, we often didn’t get home from soccer practice until 9:00 at night. I’m not going to be the person who’s fixing dinner at 9:00, so we did a lot of sandwiches at my house when my children were growing up.”

Preparing your meals in advance can also help you to overcome the time barrier. Pick a night where you’re not too busy, and chop the vegetables you’ll need for the rest of the week. Cook large meals such as stews so you can have leftovers the next night. 

Emotional Eating

Many of us eat based on our emotions. “Comfort food” is called that for a reason. We often turn to foods such as mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and pie when we are feeling down. 

Additionally, when we’re driven by our emotions, we’re less likely to have the willpower to turn down that extra cookie. However, even positive emotions can lead to unhealthy eating patterns—for example, we might use food to reward ourselves. 

While there is nothing wrong with doing this occasionally, if done on a regular basis, it can wreak havoc on our health, and the pleasure of is fleeting at best. So the next time you find yourself indulging in emotional eating, think of ways you can satisfy your emotions that don’t involve food. Watch your favorite movie or get a massage.

If you are experiencing depression, recognize that you will only begin to feel better by getting to the core of your emotions—not burying them in food. Seeing a therapist or engaging in mindfulness are just a couple of ways to address depression.

Food, Religion, and Culture

Religion and culture are very important in terms of our food choices, dictating what foods we can and cannot eat. This is one instance where it is acceptable to overlook conventional nutritional advice, within reason.

“I had a basketball player who, during Ramadan, his holy fasting time, would actually fast,” Professor Anding said. “His basketball statistics got better during Ramadan because that’s what made him whole—his faith and his culture. He actually scored more and had more rebounds, even with no food and no water.

Well, I have to tell you, as a sports dietician, that’s probably not anything that I would ever recommend, but it worked well for him because again, it completed the package.”

Therefore, it is important to nourish your mind, body, and soul.

Health Beliefs

Your beliefs dictate your choices. This is particularly true when it comes to beliefs passed down from family.

In terms of food practices, you should honor these beliefs, especially if they have always worked for you. For example, if you have always successfully stopped colds in their tracks by drinking a certain tea your mother recommended, then there is no reason to stop, regardless of whether this belief is backed by science. 

However, if you’re still not getting the results you desire, particularly when they relate to long-term goals such as weight loss, it’s time to call your beliefs into question. This is difficult because, by nature, we’re resistant to change, but you just have to treat it as an experiment—try something new for a few months, and if it doesn’t work, you can always go back to your old way of doing things. 

Poverty and Unhealthy Eating

Socioeconomic status and the economy can make a big difference in terms of how people eat. Many individuals won’t buy fruits and vegetables due to a belief that they are too expensive. 

One solution to this is canned fruits and vegetables, which are very affordable and have improved much in the last five to six years. An added benefit is that they do not go bad nearly as quickly as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Overall, when it comes to nutrition, most of us have a general idea of how to eat healthy, yet we are hindered by internal and external limitations. By recognizing these barriers to a healthy lifestyle, we can then work toward solutions.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.