The carrot and stick approach – Fruitnet

I want you to think about what it takes to change your dietary habits and food consumption choices, not just in the short-term, but in the long-term. What is truly required? If making long-term choices and losing weight or getting healthier was easy, we would not see such a plethora of new diets cropping up every year. Paleo, keto, Weight Watchers – these are all diets or food philosophies people subscribe to because they want to lower their weight or take more control of their health.

The challenge, according to most dieticians, is diets don’t work. Yes, there may be short-term results, but people generally struggle with permanent lifestyle changes.

I want you to do a quick activity. Pause for a moment and think about a time when you changed your diet. What was the catalyst? Why did you change? How long did it last? This is the perfect question to ask just a few months after New Year’s when all the well-intended resolutions have either stuck or fallen by the wayside. What did you discover? If you are anything like me, a few diet and lifestyle changes have stuck over the years, but many well-intended changes just didn’t last. I go back to my initial question: what does it take to truly make dietary change stick?

From a simple perspective, I think there are a few catalyst moments in life when the power for permanent change wins out over habit. 

I think diets change when you first become an independent, self-supporting adult. I am already seeing traces of this in my son. There is more fast food in his life than I would like. There are more sugar and quick-carb foods than I would like. There are less fruit and vegetables than I would like. While his childhood was filled with fruit and vegetables, his current choices have swung away from fresh produce. Some of this is just convenience and not wanting to cook, and who knows, some might be a subconscious rebellion now that he is more independent. Regardless, what it reflects is he is establishing new food consumption habits and his past habits may not carry over.

I think food and lifestyle choices come under scrutiny during pregnancy. When pregnant or breastfeeding, there is not a more critical time to move away from habits like drinking, smoking or poor diet and make more healthy choices. Often these short-term changes result in permanent changes.

I think food and lifestyle choices come under scrutiny when a doctor or a health test delivers bad news. There is nothing like finding out your health is diminishing to inspire change … and I can now speak to this directly.

Because I speak on trends and how trends impact fresh produce, I have been tracking the ‘self-directed health care’ trend. In the US, one can now order a range of medical tests online, have the testing kits home delivered, complete the test and mail it in for diagnosis. This can all be done without the need of a doctor’s referral. Never one to pass up participating in a trend, I ordered two tests to be delivered to my hotel on a recent trip to the US. The results from the first test recently arrived.

These results were from blood work. The company who does the testing tracks 43 biomarkers, covering everything from cholesterol to cortisol to fasting glucose and much, much more. One of the add-ons to the test is you can get a determination of your ‘physical age’ so you can compare this to your actual age. Let’s just say my result scared me. Right now, according to the biomarkers from my blood test, I am significantly older ‘physically’ than my age. And out of 43 biomarkers, I have ten in the ‘red zone’, which means cause for concern. I can assure you, getting bad news in a health test is a significant motivator for diet and lifestyle change. 

Without boring you with the details, I have significantly changed my diet and lifestyle as a result of the test results. I am going alcohol-free for six months. I have moved to intermittent fasting. I am converting to more of a plant-based diet. I have reignited an exercise regime. I have committed to losing 10 per cent of my body weight. My goal is to re-test in June when I am back in the US with a focus on getting my physical age to align with my actual age. Bad news is indeed a powerful motivator for permanent change.

This brings me back to the carrot and stick approach. At a very simplistic level, imagine a future where you could be rewarded for changing your diet and health risks. 

Let’s just take for example health insurance. While health insurance is not an issue we are too concerned about in Australia and New Zealand, in the US insurance costs are outrageously expensive. At the same time, most insurance expenditure goes to fighting lifestyle diseases, diseases that can be improved based on dietary changes.

What if a person could reduce their insurance premium by getting healthier? So you do a blood test like I did, submit it to your insurer and if you improve your health through your own, self-directed dietary and lifestyle changes, you pay  fewer premiums. Again, from a simplistic perspective, it makes sense and everyone wins.

Of course, we need to continue educating and inspiring people to eat more fruit and vegetables. The good news is Millennials and Gen Z’s are more concerned about their health, so I believe we will see a natural increase in fresh produce consumption over time. 

However, for many people, the motive to change may require a firmer carrot and stick approach. We know eating more fresh produce is a powerful way to improve health. By dangling a carrot such as lower premiums or some other financial incentive, perhaps we can get more people to change faster and drive fresh produce consumption at the same time.