Monday, May 28, 2012

How to talk to people about healthy eating

A reader, Kristi, posted this comment a few days ago:
"I had an interesting conversation with some neighbors yesterday. One guy has what sounds like out-of-control diabetes (A1c > 12, glucose > 300, etc.) and he has been trying to control it with diet and exercise. He went to a vegan cooking class and got convinced to go vegan but his sugar is getting worse. He still eats a lot of refined grains, high sugar fruits, etc. It's no surprise to me considering what he eats and what I think he should be eating. Surprisingly (to me), he has read ETL but obviously hasn't really absorbed the info or applied it. He made the comment, "there is so much advice out there about how to eat and exercise, it's hard to know what to do." His comment (and another unrelated conversation with someone this weekend) got me wondering how to communicate about my own understanding of nutrient dense eating and why I'm convinced that it is the best way to eat. I read ETL and became convinced right away that it made the most sense and was backed up by peer reviewed scientific research. It also gave me great results when I applied it to my own body. 
I don't have any interest in converting people to the ETL diet-style, but when people ask me about it and challenge me about why I do it, I find myself at a loss for convincing explanations. I don't have the research studies on the tip of my tongue. I end up usually dropping the subject and saying that ETL isn't likely to be widely adopted because it is too far away from what most people think that they want to eat. At the same time, while I don't want to be an evangelist, I don't want to discount the benefits I've experienced either
How do you answer people who ask about ETL? 
What could I say to people who have already followed Dr. X, Dr. Y and Dr. Z, with no good results? Isn't Dr. F just the next flawed doctor with the next flawed idea? It feels sometimes like trying to convert people from their lifelong religion. It may be that the people asking are in a defensive position and not one of true curiosity. But then again, I don't know *for sure* that ETL is the right answer for everybody. Maybe it would be best just to encourage people to try the six week plan for themselves (if they really want to know) and see if they feel better. "
First let me say, I don't know.  And yet that won't stop me from responding (haha).  I don't think you can convince anyone of anything or convert anyone.  And I think Kristi agrees, judging by her statement that she has no interest in converting anyone.  On top of that, because it's so hard to know what to believe, people will tend to believe authority figures or credentialed people over their peers.  I'm an astronomer and it seems that most people will believe anything I say about astronomy.  Medical doctors are considered authority figures on health and dietitians on nutrition.   So when a person's doctor says diet doesn't play much of a role in your health, perhaps with the exception of your weight, most people believe that.  I did for the first 45 years of my life.  I am a "peer" when it comes to health and nutrition so why should anyone believe me?

That said, I have been successful at planting a seed and being an example.  I haven't converted anyone, but people have converted themselves and in some cases I provided the catalyst for that.   I don't need to be an eloquent debater, armed with facts, to do this.  I refer to the Drs (Fuhrman, McDougall, Esselstyn, Campbell, Barnard) and their books.  I offer to loan people the books.  They (the doctors) are the authority figures, not me.  People can then decide based on the books.  Most people politely decline.  Some people read the book and decide it's not for them, some people bite a few years later, some people get completely convinced and ask for advice and I am very happy to help out.

How to plant the seeds?  I taught a vegan cooking class in my church a few years ago.  It influenced a few people.  It took a few years but when one of the students' partner was stricken with a terrible relapse of ulcerative colitis (UC), he tried this diet and has now become a complete convert.  The same thing happened with another couple I know.  I loaned the books to one person who was facing illness--she wasn't interested but her partner (another UC case) totally jumped in and is a happy convert.  I've offered the books to others who politely declined.  Now most people in my work and church know I eat this way, and of course the vast majority would never consider it for themselves.  But they know who to ask for more info if they were to consider it.  Some of my close friends eat a lot more salads and veggies than they used to, and ask my opinion about nutrition.

I don't try to argue about anything or say why Drs F,M,E,C,B are better than X, Y, and Z.   I do understand how people can be very confused and not know who to believe.  I don't see how anything I can say would sway them to believe one doctor over another.    I just say this works for me and describe how my health has improved if they want to know.

I don't know if that helps at all.  It is difficult watching people's health decline and wishing I could help them.  Someone on the forums said it's like being in heaven and hell at the same time:  heaven because you feel so good, and hell because you are surrounded by so much suffering, much of it avoidable, and you are helpless to do anything about it because no one would believe you if you said, "diet can cure that."  and I do understand their point of view:  here they are suffering terribly and you say "diet can cure that."  that probably feels very insulting to them.  that's not what their doctor says and they just went through a bunch of painful medical interventions with terrible side effects and you are saying that it all could be avoided by eating differently?  how dare you?   they invested all that pain and suffering and money, and to think it could have been avoided is unthinkable.   well, I am getting off-topic sorry.  this is what makes me suffer...


Kristi said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this. They are very helpful. I like what you said about authority figures and how people convert themselves.

In one of the situations I was in this week, a person who had converted herself (as a result of my experiences) was trying to convert a third person and brought that person to me for conversion. What I didn't realize is that the third person wasn't really interested in being converted. It should have been no surprise then that the third person was so resistant to the information.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Interesting.

Shanna said...

It really is a message that the person has to be desperate for or have a curious and enthusiastic mind. Also, some people just can't read books in this day and age, they would rather watch a little clip on a cheesy TV show. Even the PBS lecture could be to long for them. I guess that just proves they aren't really into it.

kneecap said...

Kristi, that's happened to me to. That's made me even more cautious about promoting this stuff. In fact, I almost think they less forthcoming you are, the more they want to find out. sort of like playing hard to get.

Shannon, good point about people not reading. hmm. Maybe I should recommend the audio books. I don't know that people could adopt this diet without reading the book. It seems you have to know why because otherwise it seems too crazy. Usually people who haven't read the book say "this is healthy right?" about almost anything, and it usually isn't.

Kristi said...

Playing hard to get... Good analogy. When I realized the person was defensive I just dropped the whole subject. Maybe it will come up another day in another context.

Shanna, I think you're right about people needing to be desperate for the information or having a curious mind. In other circumstances, there isn't any openness for what seems like such extreme changes. Great discussion.

Shanna said...

Yes, the asking "what should I eat, is this good, this?" I try to deflect those questions or stay really light with my response and be sympathetic.

My sister, who has cancer, will call up and say what should I buy? It really isn't something you can "phone in" is it? You have to know the why then you are free to make many choices with your knowledge base. Although I would love to lock my sister up and feed her only the most nutritious cancer fighting foods every day... that isn't how it works. Also, I can't carry other people. This situation has happened several times where the other "diet buddy" is just hanging on me when I can barely keep my own head above water.

It is wonderful now we have blogs and entire websites for support, the person just has to want to take advantage.

kneecap said...

haha, I have several people I would like to lock up and feed too! I think in one week they would notice a difference.

I know what you mean about carrying other people too. I'd love to, just don't always feel I can carry myself so how could I carry others too. Sometimes people look up to me, and I'm struggling too and thinking you really shouldn't be looking up to me!

Kristi said...

It ends up that the person who was so resistant read the Healthy Times newsletter that I provided (Vegan Athlete) and is making changes already. I like the newsletters because they are topic specific and they are brief. Have any of you had any success communicating with people using the newsletters?

kneecap said...


yes indeed, the topical nature of the newlsetters is very useful when someone has a specific question. Then they don't have to read the whole book, or I don't have to point to specific pages. yes, I have found this works well too.