Can We Force People to Be Healthy?


This is a cross-post from one of my recent posts on WeAretheRealDeal,  a body image blog that was introduced at last summer’s BlogHer conference at a panel discussion on body image and blogging.  I’m pleased to join the blog as a contributor.

Self-efficacy is a big word.  Okay, two words.  It’s about our belief in ourselves, essentially that we are in charge of our thoughts and actions.

The concept pops up in my mind every time I hear someone say it’s a person’s duty to live a healthy lifestyle.  We see these kinds of statements often in discussions that get into HAES principles. “It’s okay if someone is fat as long as they’re eating healthy, exercising, etc.”  Meaning that it’s not okay if they’re not doing that because of the impact their choice may have on others such as family members who might have to care for them if they fall ill, or the rest of us who end up paying for it via health care costs.  I won’t get into whether people feel the same about someone who isn’t fat.
It also comes to mind when I hear discussions about taxing foods in order to address obesity problems.  (Disclaimer:  Not all obesity is problematic. Some of us are made to be larger and we can be healthy at the same time.)  Because many of us appear not to be able to handle eating problems by ourselves, some folks think legislating (translated: taxing) us into better eating habits will work.  Although I wonder without researching my question whether it might not be more reasonable for a whole lot of reasons to reduce corn subsidies that have made the sweetener used in sodas so inexpensive.  If sodas are taxed, seems like we’re paying for them twice.  But I digress.

My point about self-efficacy is that neither of the above scenarios helps build it in the person who is struggling with it.  Not everyone struggles with self-efficacy, but many people who struggle with eating, weight and body image do.  And feelings of self-efficacy are essential to successful change.  Generally, if someone doesn’t believe they can do something, they can’t.

In my eating disordered days, no one could have been more intent on leading a healthy lifestyle than I.  But my belief in myself was damaged by years of attention paid by others to my weight.  Never obese in the clinical sense of the word, yet never really thin compared to siblings and other family members, I was always the odd one out in terms of size.  And they let me know it.  It damaged my self-esteem, growing up thinking I was somehow less acceptable than others because of my size. The often scornful comments I received about my weight only made me feel worse about myself and sink deeper into the struggle that consumed my life.  My salvation was finding myself in other things; a healthy lifestyle followed because of my own desire, not because someone pushed or shamed me into it.

Long story short, it’s unlikely that any form of dictating to people is going to help them adopt healthy lifestyles, whether it’s a general belief by others that someone “should” or an attempt to force them into it.  Forget about how that might make someone dig in their heels and resist any attempt at change.  In essence, such thoughts and actions smack of disapproval, and all disapproval does is chip away at our ability to believe in ourselves.

How good are you at believing in yourself in the face of opposition? It definitely slows me down.


5 responses to “Can We Force People to Be Healthy?”

  1. Julie Trevor says:

    Good read!
    I recall vividly wishing that “they” would just outlaw sugar laden foods (as a kid some 35-40 yrs ago); it never occurred to me that personal responsibility and choice where mine.
    While I still struggle with “healthy” choices and life activities I believe I’m in a much better position to make those choices than someone who never had to struggle with them until menopause…

  2. Cindy says:

    Great post. One of the more negative influences dieting has in our lives is all the ‘try and fail’. The failure is inherent — I don’t care how much confidence and belief in yourself you possess. In other aspects of your life you may face opposition and come out victorious. This builds confidence in your own abilities. That is rare when you diet. Dieting in and of itself is about failure — so it’s impact is toxic.

  3. Marsha says:

    Odd though it might be, Julie, I think you’re right. The more we struggle with things, the more opportunity we have to learn what doesn’t work. And then we can choose more intelligently. Of course, that depends on ultimately having choices that are supportive. In the face of all the misguided notions about healthy eating and weight out there, it often takes hanging in there to discover the supportive choices we have.

    Good point, Cindy. The almost guaranteed failure of diets is going to damage the self esteem of anyone who depends on diets to guide them in taking care of themselves.

  4. Julie says:

    “All disapproval does is chip away at our ability to believe in ourselves” – ain’t that the truth. Encouragement and self belief are the only ways to go.

  5. Marsha says:

    Thanks for your comment, Julie. Obviously, I agree with you! Love your blog, btw.

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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