Author, Nav Sharma, RD
Have you ever struggled with motivation? I’m sure the answer to that question is: YES! and as most of us know, motivation can be tricky to maintain. There are so many different aspects of our lives that require motivation such as healthy eating, and it is common for people to struggle to maintain momentum.
Feeling unmotivated can come with unpleasant feelings of guilt, failure, or laziness. On the other hand, feeling motivated might create a sense of energy, purpose, well-being and happiness. As Registered Dietitians, an extremely important part of our job is helping our clients with behaviour change through proper coaching and guidance. This includes motivating them (and I don’t mean through food although I have been guilty in the past by using a Cinnabon as motivation…hmmm).
Keep reading to find out where motivation stems from, types of motivation, factors that can decrease our motivation and some simple tips that make it easier to stay motivated!
Where does motivation to eat healthy start?
To really dig deep and understand the origin of motivation, we have to look at the brain! I’ll try to keep things simple but if this part goes over your head, feel free to skip over this section. I won’t be offended… promise!
Now, for my science lovers, let’s begin with neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are essentially chemical messengers in our brain and their job is to send signals from your nerve cells to target cells. These target cells can be in any part of your body and this is how our brain tells our bodies to play out necessary functions such as picking up a fork or chewing our food.
One particular neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation is dopamine. For dopamine to work effectively, it must travel down the mesolimbic pathway which can also be considered the most important reward pathway in the brain. One of the stops along the mesolimbic pathway is the nucleus accumbens. When your brain recognizes that something important or exciting is about to happen, dopamine is signalled to be sent to the nucleus accumbens. The less exciting or important you find something, the less dopamine is released and, therefore, the less motivated you are.
Different types of motivation
Motivation can be divided into two types, based on the cause.
Intrinsic motivation exists within yourself, driven by interest or enjoyment. Intrinsic motivation is important for long-term, enduring change. To spark intrinsic motivation Think: how do you want to feel? Healthy? How do you want to live? Comfortable in your own skin or be able to engage with your grandchildren.
Extrinsic motivation comes from rewards and incentives. This type can help to get you going and is important for starting behaviour change and doing things you may not enjoy. Think: If you ‘hate’ exercise, what rewards can you set up to reinforce this behaviour? A new pair of shoes after going to the gym 30 times?
Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are important for making and sticking with behaviour change, however, intrinsic motivators may have more of a lasting effect.
What can make our motivation tank?
Here are just a few things that can negatively influence our motivation.
1) Being bored with your routine. Sometimes we get into a cycle of eating the same things over and over again because we know that these foods are healthy but we aren’t enjoying them as much as we used to.
2) Feeling like what you’re doing isn’t making a difference. Maybe you tried to improve your diet on your own to decrease your cholesterol levels but your follow-up blood work showed that your levels are still the same.
3) Not being satisfied with your results. For example, you started your 50 lbs weight loss journey in March hoping to achieve your goal by the beginning of June but it’s almost the end of June and you still have half your goal to go.
4) Feeling stressed about what you’re doing. For example, you were really excited about your nutrition journey but an unexpected incident occurred in your personal life that has thrown you off. Now you’re feeling overwhelmed because you have too many things to manage and your nutrition becomes low on your priority list.
6) Comparing yourself to others. Maybe you started a diet that has worked wonders for a colleague but for some reason, it isn’t working for you, even after all that effort.
7) Feeling like you’re failing. You have recently decided to revamp your nutrition but have set some unrealistic goals on how you will go about doing this and now you are feeling discouraged.
8) Not feeling ready. Sometimes we are forced to make changes or start something new but internally, we haven’t committed to the change. We can sustain this change for a short period of time until we give up, even if we know it’s good for us.
Here is a list of tips for rekindling your healthy eating motivation:
..And getting that dopamine flowing again.
1) Know your “why”! Give some thought to why you started your nutrition goal and what you will gain by taking action. Reconnecting with your “why” may enable you to break through the barriers that were holding you back. Your “why” is your higher cause and can inspire you to take action with a greater sense of purpose.
2) Switch things up! Find new recipes with foods you’ve never tried, try new spices, switch your meal prep day(s) to other convenient times or invest in new cookware like a high-speed blender. Sometimes sprucing up your kitchen a bit can give you just the right push to keep going.
3) Take some time to research an eating plan that will work for you! There are a million of results that will come up on Google if you try to search for a plan that will address your specific nutrition goals. If you spend enough time looking through current reputable research carefully, you might get close. Still not sure? Go to a nutrition professional for some help.
4) Set realistic goals and expectations! You might have heard that your aunt’s friend’s daughter lost 30 lbs in one month or that guy at the gym turned his belly fat into abs after 3 weeks. Setting unattainable goals can lead to feelings of frustration and cause you to give up. Dietitians recommend losing 1-2 lbs a week for healthy sustainable weight loss. And remember, a loss of 5-10% of your body weight can have a significant positive impact on your health. Use the SMART goals method to help you set more realistic goals (S-specific; M-measurable; A-achievable; R-realistic; T-time-framed).
5) Break down your goals into smaller, more achievable tasks! Break bigger goals, like ‘eating more vegetables’ down into smaller tasks, like ‘this week have a salad at lunch.’ Have a list of tasks you’d like to complete on particular days in your week. For example, maybe grocery shopping, washing your fruits and vegetables and meal prepping on the same day is time-consuming and overwhelming for you. Try dividing these tasks across three separate days.
6) Track your progress! Tracking your progress and recording accomplishments reinforces how well you’re chipping away at your goals. As you feel yourself making more progress, you’ll feel the greater effects of dopamine. For example, tracking your blood sugars, blood pressure, nutrition intake and/or weight on a consistent basis can increase motivation.
7) Set up a reward system! It’s important to recognize and celebrate your healthy eating accomplishments along the way, even if those accomplishments are small. Choosing the best reward can be challenging. We often spoil ourselves with food or alcohol but those incentives can undo all of your hard work. Try to choose non-food rewards to keep your progress on track.
8) Be nice to yourself! Understand that you are human and your journey will not be ‘perfect’. You may experience some unanticipated bumps along the way but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick up from where you left off and keep going.
9) Remember how you feel when you make better food choices! Immediate benefits could include decreased bloating, feeling hydrated and an increase in energy levels. This can also be something that you track, along with your progress, to remind yourself how good it feels to eat well.
10) Focus on how good you’ll feel once you achieve your goal! Envisioning the future and how much better things will be is one of the reasons why we keep working at our goals. Health and quality of life are the most valuable reasons to continue to improve your nutrition. Hearing our clients tell us that they have more energy, feel stronger, feel confident in their clothes or finally don’t have constant bloating is so rewarding! Take a look at our client spotlight blogs on our website to read some real-life testimonials.
11) Surround yourself with inspiration! Keeping a positive mindset is extremely important when making healthy changes. Collecting motivational quotes, listening to your favourite motivational speakers, following some relatable influencers on Instagram or even creating a vision board to help you clarify, concentrate and maintain focus on a specific life goal are some ideas that have worked really well for some of my clients. Some other ideas to consider are spending more time with like-minded friends that can encourage and support you or keeping some old clothes you’d like to fit back into more visible.
12) Get professional help when you need it! Don’t hesitate to consult a professional for help with your nutrition goals when needed – especially when you’re starting out or when you’re in a rut. People who feel more confident in their knowledge and abilities tend to have better chances of achieving their goals. This may mean finding a registered dietitian (ahem…) who can teach you about the science of healthy eating and create a personalized plan for you. Your registered dietitian can also help to keep you accountable and assist you with goal setting.
If you have some nutrition goals and need a hand with discovering or improving your motivation, or if you are feeling motivated but don’t know where to start, our Registered Dietitians are here (online) to help. We use a style of counselling known as “motivational interviewing“ to get to the core of the things that motivate you, and then use this motivation to fuel you towards your goals. Get science-based nutrition advice and personalized coaching today!