Maybe you want to change something about how you eat. Perhaps you want to finally follow through on your Meatless Monday intentions, or stop realizing it’s 4 pm and you haven’t had a vegetable yet. Or, maybe you just want to get out of your dinner rut and expand your palate.
But when you’re facing habits that have been ingrained for years — even decades — change can be hard. And even if a doctor is telling you that the diet tweak is for your own good and lays out a plan forward, following through on that change can feel like an uphill battle.
Enter health coaching, a relatively new and growing field in the health and lifestyle world. Health coaches, as their titles imply, are tasked with helping people achieve their health goals, whether that’s upping your produce game, shifting to a low-sodium diet, or other, non-dietary changes. “It really is driven by the individual and what they are intrinsically motivated to do,” says Ruth Wolever, director of health coaching at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Coaches really help people to explore where they want to make changes in their lives and what would be the best approach to doing that.”
The Empowered Eater
One of the key elements of health coaching is putting you in the driver’s seat to make dietary changes. This is unlike what we’re used to in the mainstream health and wellness world, which is an “authority-based system,” as Maryland University of Integrative Health instructor Sherry Leikin puts it. “In the US health care system model, the health care professionals will tell the patient, ‘You have this illness, and this is what you need to do.’ The problem is, there’s rarely support for this person in making the behavior change.”
Coaches provide that support by being active, non-judgmental listeners who help people unpack what health behavior they’d like to change, why they think they can change, and how they can achieve that change. “It really helps because it’s not very often that a person is really deeply listened to in an empathetic and non-judgmental way,” says Leikin. Coaches should also be neutral, without their own agenda in mind. “As amazing as friends and family are, they also know you as a daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend,” says Wolever. “They have a different kind of relationship with you, while a coach is fully charged with helping you move forward.”
Health coaches, who typically have training in behavioral science and habit formation techniques, can also help people lead healthier lives by nailing down a new, healthy behavior step by step. There are two elements to habit formation, explains Wolever. First, a cue (let’s say, once you’ve clocked off work and 6 pm rolls around), becomes associated with a behavior or series of behaviors (perhaps a 30-minute jog on the treadmill). Next, a reward becomes associated with the behavior when it’s completed (maybe a quick episode of your favorite television show, or a cuddle session with your puppy). Working through these stages of habit formation is itself a skill, notes Wolever. “People can learn this change process and apply it to thing after thing.”
The Power of Follow Through
Besides helping people figure out the three parts to this process, coaches also hold you accountable, which is crucial to making sure a behavior becomes a habit. This is a big reason health coaches are so effective: All patients in a small 2015 Canadian Family Physician journal study mentioned accountability when talking about their positive health coaching experiences, while a 2015 study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine conducted on people with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol showed that there was a 10 percent increase in the number of people who took their medications as directed in the group that received health coaching.
Though it is an important part of a coach’s job to keep people accountable, that doesn’t mean they’re disciplinarians. Quite the opposite, say both Wolever and Leikin. Working with a health coach is a positive, supportive experience. Part of the coaching process includes going over not only the person’s past successful experiences in making lifestyle changes, but also celebrating resilience and successes. “So much of a person’s day is filled with ‘What problem do I have to fix?’ or ‘What does somebody need?’ And so what clients are grateful for is the coach’s ability to see what they can achieve and hold that up for them when they have a hard time seeing it,” says Wolever.
No wonder personal support emerged as a major theme of health coaching during interviews in a 2016 qualitative study by academics from the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. “People are just wired to focus on the negative, and so there’s a lot of emphasis on noticing the positive,” comments Leikin. “By showing a client where they were when they started, and where they’ve come, that also helps them to build their confidence in their own abilities.” That makes it easier to snowball those healthy habits — cutting back on processed foods first, say, then focusing on more veggie-heavy meals.
Want to find a coach? Rally members may have access to coaching programs at no added cost. (United Health members can sign in and see if any coaching programs are available here.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also keeps a registry of CDC-recognized lifestyle change programs for diabetes prevention. These include medical providers and community centers like the YMCA, as well as Real Appeal and other programs.
Interested in a weight loss program? Start the enrollment process to see if you are eligible for Real Appeal.