Health Literacy

I will never forget the moment that left me utterly terrified. I sat in a cafe watching a young mother feeding her infant breakfast. It consisted of a hot dog served on a bun with fries. This poor little thing received nothing but empty calories and toxic ingredients that did more harm than good to its health – at a stage in life when proper nutrition matters the most. I never assumed, nor do I want to suggest it here, that the mother didn’t care for the health and wellbeing of her child. Quite to the contrary. But her ignorance about the subject of nutrition was all too obvious.

Talking to people about the importance of dietary matters is not always easy. More often than not, health counselors are perceived by their own patients as puritans, naggers, task masters and spoilers of fun – especially when the need for significant lifestyle changes is involved. I’m sure, I’ve been called some less than flattering names by my own clientele.

It’s hard to tell people that some of their favorite habits are wrong and even harmful to them. More importantly, there are hardly any quick fixes. Healthful lifestyle changes require serious commitment and discipline. All the hard work has to be done by the client. As health counselors, we are only guides and teachers. And what we have to teach can sometimes come with a steep learning curve.

Changing one’s way of living is very much like learning a new language. It starts with the ABCs. Almost all of my clients expect to have to make some kind of adjustments, otherwise they would not seek my counsel in the first place. But only a few ever consider the bigger picture that involves a change of thinking and attitude. Most never bother to ask what it would take to live consciously a healthier life. They may see the need for change but they never build a sufficiently solid foundation to make their efforts last beyond a short period of time – before they fall back into old habits.

A healthy lifestyle does not develop by simply following a set of rules. No commandments and prohibitions will keep a person in compliance forever if they don’t understand and accept the reasoning behind them. Real motivation has to come from within and it must be based on insight and knowledge of the facts. Unfortunately, those facts are not always part of common knowledge.

It has been said that people mostly stick with what they know. Knowledge motivates behavior. So, before we even talk about lifestyle changes, we need to work on the knowledge level first. There are reasons why people develop certain habits – good and bad. Most of the time, people do not intend to ruin their health. Even self-destructive and self-sabotaging behavior is typically caused by ignorance and naiveté about the potential consequences. In the case of the young mother who fed her child the wrong kind of food, it would probably have been easy to convince her to make better choices, had she only known the first thing about nutrition.

It can make you sad to think that, in an age where so much knowledge is available, so few take advantage of information that really matters. A few years ago, a colleague of mine wrote a book she called “The Manual that Should have Come with Your Body.” Cindy Heroux, the author, realized at some point that most of her clients (especially men) knew pretty much what was needed to keep their cars and other favorite toys running smoothly – while they seemed utterly ignorant about the ins and outs of their inner engine. And this discrepancy is a real problem. Why? Cindy writes, because, unlike any of your other gadgets, “you only have one body and it must last a lifetime.” So, let’s get it in our minds that we must take care of our bodies.

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