Using Identity to Promote Healthy Eating
Rethinking the way we treat ourselves.
Despite increased awareness of the health risks of unhealthy eating, many people have difficulty making healthy dietary changes, and obesity rates continue to rise. In a 2015 study, researchers Amanda Brouwer and Katie Mosack proposed that one way to combat this problem is to change the way we see ourselves: Rather than simply pursuing the goal of eating more healthfully, we should identify as “healthy eaters.”
Why would identifying as a healthy eater make you more likely to become one? Prior research suggests that people are more likely to behave in ways that are congruent with their identity. For example, if we see ourselves as caring people, we’re more likely to behave in caring ways; likewise, if we see ourselves as healthy eaters, we may be more likely to make healthy food choices. They call this a “self-as-doer” identity.
To test the hypothesis that identifying as a “doer” of a healthy behavior—in this case, healthy eating—could increase the behavior, researchers exposed one group of participants to a “self-as-doer” intervention. After receiving educational materials about healthy eating, participants in this group completed a worksheet that involved: 1) listing six food-related goals; 2) transforming these goals into “doer” phrases (e.g., “eat more fruit” became “fruit-eater”); 3) envisioning being that kind of person; and 4) considering what it would take to become more like that over time.
Results showed that over the next few weeks, participants who identified as healthy eaters reported greater consumption of healthy foods, compared to participants in the two control conditions, which involved only receiving educational materials or doing an unrelated task. “Self-as-doer” participants didn’t increase in healthy eating over time, but they did maintain their healthy eating to a greater degree than the other participants, who tended to slip into less healthy habits.
These findings suggest that transforming dietary goals into self-identities might be a simple, affordable way to help people maintain healthy eating behavior, at least in the short term. They also raise the possibility that other kinds of goals may benefit from conversion into “self-as-doer” form. For example, what if low-performing students envisioned themselves as straight-A students, or if sedentary people saw themselves as athletic?
Research by Gabriele Oettingen suggests that people should proceed with caution when envisioning positive future selves. Positive thinking can increase hope and optimism, but it can also sometimes make people a bit too optimistic, producing a premature sense of accomplishment that undermines effort and motivation. In her research, Oettingen has found that positive fantasies about goals ranging from weight loss to job offers tend to be counterproductive because people neglect to plan for very real obstacles that they are likely to encounter.
Oettingen doesn’t think we need to scrap positive fantasies altogether, but recommends instead that we complement them with a realistic assessment of obstacles, especially inner obstacles such as fear of failure, and then come up with a concrete plan to address those obstacles.
The “self-as-doer” intervention contains a bit of this approach, since participants don’t just envision themselves as healthy eaters—they also consider what it will take to make this identity a reality. But identity-based interventions might be most effective when combined with action-based strategies such as Oettingen’s. Perhaps the most useful identities are those that focus on our potential, not just a fixed state of being: We can be “healthy eaters” who are still growing into ourselves.