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Outside claims vs. the voice within

15 January 2013

January can be a difficult month. It starts with bad habits being cast away and resolutions boldly taken up. This can be painfully difficult once we realise that some old habits are not as easily broken as others, and making ‘healthier choices’ can be a complex task. This period of mass confusion is well-publicised, but what’s interesting is to look at the array of conflicting messages and advice in the press this month.

Newspapers are rather predictable in approach, with weekend supplements emblazoned with outlandish statements claiming to be able to help us lose a stone by the following Sunday (or thereabouts).  Some of us might opt for a more straightforward option, which might extend to cutting down on alcohol and eating more fruit and veg, maybe even the holy grail of ‘five-a-day’.

Browsing the aisles of most high-street food chains, we’re bombarded with different products claiming to provide miraculous health benefits for the consumer. The buzzwords of ‘antioxidant’ and ‘superfood’ are more visible in the post-indulgent reality of the New Year. A good illustration of this is Innocent Drinks’ new visually arresting campaign, which reinforces the idea that healthy and positive change is simpler than it sounds: ‘Beat January. Drink Innocent’. Clever copy and posh packaging imply that the change we’re looking for can be purchased and ingested with ease. It’s a convincing and effective method of marketing that engages with our collective eagerness to live, look and feel better fast. As a case in point I recently bought a whole pot of beetroot, despite disliking it, on the basis of its ‘superfood’ qualities.

Henry Scowcroft of Cancer Research UK has highlighted this peculiar trend, writing that we are hasty to assume that words like ‘antioxidant’ are a byword for ‘healthy’. Scowcroft points to a widespread reluctance to confront what we already know – that a balanced lifestyle often means restricting what we enjoy and introducing what we don’t.

Another interesting initiative this month is ‘Dry January’. Of course many people would benefit from drinking a bit less – and this campaign has done a great deal to raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol dependency. But some journalists and experts have stressed that temporary abstinence may distract from the more important issue of encouraging long term lifestyle change, by focusing on quick-fix health improvement.

The vast majority of us know how we can go about leading healthier lives. We also know what makes us happy, and that longer lasting fulfillment is best sought through a delicate balance that heeds attention to both health and wellbeing. But increasingly the focus seems to be on unrealistic and dishonest expectations of what is possible. Sustainable and positive change is perhaps best sought through listening a little harder to our own instincts, not what others claim will make us better people.

For organisations that want to support long term behaviour change, there is a need to engage with people directly, digging a little deeper into their motivation and uncovering the barriers to change. With a clear picture of these elements, communications can be created that shift people away from a quick-fix mindset and equip them with helpful tools to support long term change.