Science-Based Ways to Overcome Unhealthy Eating Habits

Happy family making vegetable salad in the kitchen
Read Time: 3 Minutes

Recent research is helping clinicians better understand what patients really need in order to make sustainable and effective changes in their diets. Studies suggest that direct access to healthy food is one way to improve psychological and physical well-being. When patients with chronic disease are provided with support that helps them to make healthier choices—even over a short period of time—both health and well-being improve.

In the following video, IFM educator Michael Stone, MD, MS, IFMCP, talks about his personal relationship with food, which began with some unhealthy patterns during childhood and later developed into a healthier pattern.

Michael Stone, MD, MS, is a board-certified family physician who practices in Ashland, Oregon. He has experience in rural and frontier family medicine, in emergency medicine, and as a hospitalist.

In a randomized controlled trial over a two-week period, researchers investigated the effects of giving a group of young people a $10 voucher for fruits and vegetables and twice daily text reminders versus giving them the actual fruits and vegetables worth $10 with no reminders.1 While both groups increased their intake of fruit and vegetables, only the group that was given fruits and vegetables showed improvement on measures of flourishing, vitality, and motivation. This study suggests that direct access to healthy food may be the most effective way to help patients with dietary change that impacts their health.1 It may be that overcoming unhealthy habits can be facilitated by providing easier access to healthier choices.

Access to fresh produce has also been found to impact dietary choices in other contexts. A 2018 study found that urban gardens have a positive impact on nutrition-related outcomes like healthy food practices.2 Participants in urban gardens reported greater fruit and vegetable consumption, better access to healthy foods, greater valuing of cooking, harvest sharing with family and friends, enhanced importance of organic production, and valuing of adequate and healthy food.2

Another factor in the availability of healthy foods is where a person eats most of their meals. One recent survey showed that home and school eating are associated with better food choices, whereas other locations, including on-the-go, are associated with poorer food choices.3 The home remains an important target for intervention through nutrition education, outreach, and social marketing campaigns, according to the survey.3

Something as simple as meal color variety may help patients with dietary change.

A 2019 study found that prompting participants to eat a colorful meal increased the proportion of healthy foods consumed compared to typical meals. Furthermore, participants evaluated colorful meals to be the tastiest and most pleasant.4

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Another issue for patients attempting to eat healthier is the complexity of dietary guidelines. Sometimes, these guidelines specify complex goals and indications for healthy food choices, such as nutrient and energy content patterns4 that may be somewhat confusing to some patients. Clinicians can help by starting small and creating simple guidelines for patients to follow.

Most clinicians recognize that lifestyle change is difficult for patients. Sustainably improving a patient’s eating habits requires a thoughtful approach, and the functional medicine model provides the framework for doing just that. With the help of the IFM Toolkit, which contains hundreds of tools and a wealth of information for clinicians and patients on developing healthy eating patterns, clinicians can start to change lifelong unhealthy eating patterns and alter the health trajectory for so many patients who need this help.

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  1. Conner TS, Brookie KL, Carr AC, Mainvil LA, Vissers MC. Let them eat fruit! The effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on psychological well-being in young adults: a randomized controlled trial. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0171206. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171206
  2. Garcia MT, Ribeiro SM, Germani ACCG, Bógus CM. The impact of urban gardens on adequate and healthy food: a systematic review. Public Health Nutr. 2018;21(2):416-425. doi:10.1017/S1368980017002944
  3. Ziauddeen N, Page P, Penney TL, Nicholson S, Kirk SF, Almiron-Roig E. Eating at food outlets and leisure places and “on the go” is associated with less-healthy food choices than eating at home and in school in children: cross-sectional data from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey Rolling Program (2008-2014). Am J Clin Nutr. 2018;107(6):992-1003. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqy057
  4. König LM, Renner B. Boosting healthy food choices by meal colour variety: results from two experiments and a just-in-time Ecology Momentary Intervention. BMC Public Health. 2019;19(1):975. doi:10.1186/s12889-019-7306-z

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