Making healthy changes is hard. But studies show that the way we think about these changes can make a bit difference. If you’re trying to lose weight naturally, the way you think about what you can and can’t eat is key to your success. And if a child, spouse, parent, or friend has asked you to support them in losing weight, how you frame your messages is also key. Studies show that people respond better when they focus on what they should do, rather than what they shouldn’t.
Do vs. don’t messages
Researchers make the distinction between gain-framed and loss-framed health messages. Gain-framed messages focus on the benefits that can be acquired by following a specific recommendation. Loss-framed messages focus on what the person will lose by doing something. For example, a gain-framed or “do” message would be something like, “You should eat more vegetables because they will help you lose weight.” A loss-framed or “don’t” message would be, “You shouldn’t eat donuts because they will make you fat.”
It turns out that most people respond far better to gain-framed messages than they do to loss-framed ones. Researchers from Cornell University discovered that for most of us, “don’t” messages just don’t work. In their study, the researchers looked at 43 published papers that involved health and nutrition messages. They found that “don’t” messages only tend to work with healthcare professionals; these people are knowledgeable in the subject area and are highly involved in solving health problems, so telling them why they shouldn’t do something seems to work well.
But in the general public, people prefer to be told what foods they should eat (and why they are good for them) rather than what they shouldn’t eat (and why they are bad for them).
How to focus on positive, “do” messages
If you want to make better dietary choices, how you frame your message is key. Instead of focusing on the harms of drinking soda, consider how healthy pomegranate juice is instead. Instead of telling yourself (or your loved one) that you shouldn’t eat potato chips as a snack, buy nuts and focus on how they lower cholesterol, make you feel full, and fight heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Share your experience
Have you successfully lost weight? How did you do it? Have you ever supported someone else in his or her weight loss efforts? Which strategies worked best? Share your experience in the comments section below.