Motivating Healthy Behavior Changes

What is the most effective way of motivating healthy behavior changes? And how does medical practice best  take advantage of information about what motivates people to make positive changes?

It should be obvious that just telling someone that a certain behavior is healthy is often not enough to motivate change. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine suggests that the direct approach may actually be worse than saying nothing.

Health-focused labeling of food may actually be counter-effective because people rate foods that they perceive to be healthier as less tasty.

Researchers from Stanford University varied the labels used to describe healthy dishes of vegetables in the university cafeteria and then recorded how often the healthy dish was selected, and how much of it was eaten.

They compared four kinds of messages –

  • Messages which focused on the sensory qualities of the vegetables and implied that they were exciting and self-indulgent.
  • Messages which just presented the main ingredient.
  • Messages which focused on how selecting the dish would help you to avoid a health risk.
  • Messages which emphasized health benefits.

Examples of these messages will give you a sense of how they differed…

  • Indulgent – “Dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets”
  • Basic – “Beets”
  • Restrictive – “Lighter-choice beets with no added sugar”
  • Positive – “High-antioxidant beets”

JAMA Veggies Descriptions

The most effective strategy was the “indulgent” one.

Labeling vegetables indulgently resulted in 25% more people selecting the vegetable than when there was a basic label. Indulgent labeling was even more effective compared with either of the healthy labels. Indulgent labels led 41% more people to choose vegetables than in the healthy restrictive condition and 35%more people than in the healthy positive condition.

Selling healthy behaviors by focusing on health reasons to make the change did not work.

A more effective strategy is painting a picture of why choosing a healthy behavior is associated with pleasure and excitement.

Perhaps it is not surprising that it is hard to get people to take “mood stabilizers.”


Turnwald BP, Boles DZ, Crum AJ. Association Between Indulgent Descriptions and Vegetable Consumption: Twisted Carrots and Dynamite Beets. JAMA Intern Med. Published online June 12, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.1637

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