WTF is “lifestyle change” supposed to mean anyway?

lifestyle changeIf you’re like me, you’ve heard the term “lifestyle change” thrown around quite a bit. For example, it was used plenty of times in the comments on my recent post, My Breakup with Exercise. People are always saying things like, “It’s not about dieting, it’s about making a lifestyle change.” But oftentimes one person’s “lifestyle change” is another person’s diet, and vice versa. So WTF does “lifestyle change” actually mean?

Growing up, I first heard my parents use the term to describe a family friend and the healthy changes she made many years ago. Even then I was confused because her story began with everyone’s favorite diet company, Weight Watchers. Even though she no longer follows the program, she continues to practice some of their tips and tricks to maintain her weight, like tracking what she eats, looking for foods high in fiber, etc. A relative told me about a coworker who “doesn’t diet” but just has “plus days” and “minus days”; if she had a “plus day,” she’d compensate by having a “minus day.” To me, this all still sounds like dieting because it involves monitoring your food intake, following food “rules” or restrictions, and placing value judgements on foods or eating habits as being “good” or “bad.” Of course, you might not agree, and that’s okay.

Although the intention is usually good, telling someone to make a “lifestyle change” is problematic because everyone’s understanding of what that means is different. For example, it could mean switching to sugar-free versions of your favorite foods, or it could mean never eating artificial sweeteners ever again. Those of us who struggle with weight and body image often understand the term to apply to eating and exercise behaviors, but for others it could refer to quitting smoking or taking up a meditation practice or switching to paraben-free bath products.

The beauty of the term, though, is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean — whatever makes sense to you.

At it’s most basic level, a “lifestyle change” means making changes to support one’s personal wellness. Did you know that there are actually seven different dimensions of wellness?

  • Physical wellness can include fitness, diet and nutrition, sexual behavior, substance use or abuse, medical care, and sleep.
  • Intellectual wellness can include the pursuit of knowledge, awareness of current events, and the expression or experience of creativity.
  • Emotional wellness can include stress management and relaxation, as well as self-awareness, self-acceptance, and mental health.
  • Social wellness can include interpersonal relationships, social justice, and community service.
  • Spiritual wellness can include your value or belief system (including but not limited to religion), and finding personal meaning, hope, and optimism.
  • Environmental wellness can include the protection and conservation of natural resources, as well as the health and safety of animals, humans, and our own bodies.
  • Occupational wellness can include job satisfaction, work/life balance, and financial security.

It’s helpful to consider of all of these dimensions because it reminds us that neither our worth nor our happiness nor our “wellness” is defined by our appearance, our fitness, or our diet. Part of figuring out what making a “lifestyle change” means to you is figuring out what dimensions of wellness you want to pay more attention to–recognizing that each are equally valid and important in your personal pursuit of health and happiness.

Last year I taught a course on leadership and we used a ranking activity to help students think deeper about their own values. (Mad props to Steve R. for the activity!) I modified it and I think this version could be helpful in terms of figuring out what “lifestyle change” you might be interested in. Below are 50 different things that could be part of making a healthy “lifestyle” change, in no particular order.

 Weight management

 Fitness/ Strength


 Religious belief & practice

 Community Service

 Finances/debt management

  Job satisfaction

 Inner Harmony

 Environmental conservation

 Social Justice activism


 Stress management

 Animal rights

Being active


 Vegetarian diet/ vegan diet

 Mindfullness/ meditation


 Creativity/ Creative expression

 Sexual pleasure/sex life

 Family relationships

 Social life/ friendships

 Avoiding processed foods

 Career Advancement

 Romantic relationships

 Pursuit of knowledge

 Alcohol use/abuse

 Medical care

 Sexuality/ gender identity and expression

 Self-care/ Self-compassion

 Awareness of current events

 Political involvement

 Mental health

 Avoiding artificial sweeteners

 Body image

 Reducing intake of chemicals in bath/beauty/cleaning products, etc.

 Intuitive eating/mindful eating practice



Avoiding artificial growth hormones in meat/dairy

 Drug use/abuse

 Community engagement


Experiencing new things/places

Eating less sugar/high fructose corn syrup



 Eating whole grains

 Work/life balance

 Hobbies/skill development


 Eating local/food sustainability



Okay, here’s the hard part. Here’s the link to download and print it out: Defining your Wellness Values Chart

  1. Cross off the 10 that either a) you’re already satisfied with, or b) that are least important to you right now. (Remember that this doesn’t mean these things are unimportant, just that they are less important to you, right now, than the remaining 40.)
  2. Now cross off 10 more (30 remaining). Give yourself a time limit.
  3. Now cross off 7 (23 remaining). Take a quick break and then come back to it.
  4. Now cross off another 7 (16 remaining).
  5. Cross off 6 more (10 remaining). This is getting tough, huh?
  6. Cross off 5 more (5 remaining).
  7. Circle the most important wellness element to you at this point in time.

I just did this activity and it was really freaking hard, but I narrowed my top 5 wellness elements to: building fitness/strength, improving family relationships, self-acceptance, intuitive eating, and reducing my intake of chemicals, These are the areas I want to focus on to improve my overall “wellness.” So, for me, a “lifestyle change” means working out, accepting myself the way I am, finding more ways to make meaningful and positive connections with my family, listening to what my body wants, and staying away from processed foods and chemicalized bath and beauty products.

The thing about changing your lifestyle is that it has to be something you actually WANT to do. Wanting to lose weight because you struggle with body image is not the same thing as wanting to change the way you eat. For example, the person in that scenario might experience more success and actually feel better by choosing to focus on positive body image and building self-esteem.

Only you know what a “healthy lifestyle” means for you. And if you’re not sure yet, perhaps this activity will help.

Let me know how it goes! I am hoping to try this with my students next year, and your feedback will be super useful.



“Emotional Eating” is more than just emotional

In addition to working full time, I study health communication. You know, how people communicate about their health, how we can better bridge the communication between healthcare providers and everyone else, and how we can use communications to educate and motivate people to live healthier lives. For a class assignment, I was given the charge of making a “lifestyle transformation challenge.” I had to pick a behavior I wanted to change and track my progress towards making it a long-term lifestyle change. The point of this was to gain a full understanding of just how hard making a lifestyle transformation really is – an important thing to know if you are trying to convince others to do it.

So what behavior did I decide to change?  I’m a snacker. A big one. I feel most comfortable when I am eating something. My favorite foods are ones that you can eat over a long period of time – foods like artichokes or tacos that are more of a hobby kit than an actual meal.  I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I certainly have a salt tooth. Anything I can munch mindlessly while watching tv, writing or studying is a-okay by me. Anything with cheese is even better.

My lifestyle transformation challenge was to try to cut back on snacking, especially at night.  I came up with what I thought was a really creative way to do it – nothing like any diet plan I had ever seen.  I would give myself an hour-long window to eat dinner, and that would be it for the night.  I would not count calories or stress about what I ate for dinner, as long as I ate it within the hour window and didn’t nosh afterwards. I thought this would be easy.

Long story short: I failed to transform my lifestyle and stop snacking in the evening. But the good news, I suppose, is in what I learned along the way. During this challenge, I read Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, a powerful book about my generation’s relationship to achievement, perfectionism, and food, by Courtney Martin. I had of course heard of “emotional eating” prior to reading the book, but had never realized what it really meant or considered my snacking habits to fall under that category.

I have come to really hate the term “emotional eating” and all that it conjures up. The idea that millions of women are crying into a bowls of ice cream or “eating their feelings” is a myth. It’s a myth with plenty of moral stigma attached – weakness, gluttony, failure, loneliness. (Cat ladies? Cathy comics?) The reality is that when stressed, depressed, tired, etc., one is more likely to consume more calories for a number of reasons that are much more complicated than just “eating your feelings.”

In Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin described a “perfect girl/starving daughter” dichotomy in each of us, and while I’m sure her book resonated more with some than others, it was so true to my own experience that I now consider it gospel. You see, girls of my generation were raised by feminist moms– moms that told us that girls could be or do anything. These were also moms that managed (somehow) to work and raise us and take care of the home at the same time. They were “supermoms” and we grew up observing their busy schedules and overachiever lifestyles. And we became overachievers. We are breaking barriers in the sciences, outnumbering men in colleges, playing competitive sports, and we still look beautiful and feminine and thin. We don’t sleep much because all of this takes time.  We are Martin’s “perfect girls.”

But we are also “starving daughters” – weak, needy girls who are tired and lonely and just want to be cuddled, looked after, and loved. There is a hole in our center – you could call it spiritual, you could call it psychological – that wants to be filled with love and comfort.  Every now and then the break-neck pace of overachieverdom overwhelms us and the “starving daughter” comes out. I can literally hear mine repeating the phrase “I am just so tired” or “I am NOT okay” over and over in my head. These are the days we spend on the couch, watching TV and feeling weepy. And for many of us, these are the days we eat – consciously or not – in an attempt to fill that hole.  Thanks to Courtney Martin, I am now able to recognize my starving daughter self for what she is – my own body telling me I’m putting too much pressure on myself. She’s telling me that I don’t need another resume-builder; I need comfort, rest and love.

But there are other ways to look at the issue of “emotional eating.”  From a more medicalized perspective, there is a strong correlation between obesity and stress, depression, and sleep deprivation.  And let’s remember that according to medicine, stress and depression and sleep deprivation are legitimate medical ailments with diagnoses, treatments – the whole shebang. Overeating is a symptom of these diseases. Eating is soothing, and therefore a quick and dirty method for coping with anxiety or stress. Not to mention the fact that busy (and often stressed) people don’t have a lot of time for grocery shopping or meal prep, and often grab less-healthy foods on the fly. Sometimes their only option is a vending machine. And when you need energy NOW, your choices will reflect that with sugar, caffeine, and carbs. With depression comes apathy and the need to self-soothe. Again, these symptoms make it more likely that one will eat to soothe, and will care less about what they are eating so long as it is satisfying (warm, filling, sweet, salty, etc).

And finally, sleep deprivation is a huge factor in so-called “emotional” eating.  For one, if you’re awake for 19 hours a day, you’re likely to consume more calories than someone who is only awake for 16.  Also, sleep has a big effect on your metabolism and the way you process food. Sleep deprivation can actually cause you to gain weight, or make it harder to lose weight. Also, sleep deprivation makes us tired – and contributes to anxiety and depression, for which we often use food to cope.  I am not going to lie.  The more I learn, the more I realize sleep deprivation is a big part of my problem.

I now understand that the reason my lifestyle transformation failed was that I was trying to treat a symptom instead of the disease. I was trying to stop snacking when I should have been addressing the reasons why I snack. Working full time and being a full time student was just too much for me. I was stressed out and living with more anxiety than usual. And I had physical symptoms too – particularly a sore neck that some days hurt so badly I couldn’t turn my head.  I wasn’t sleeping much, and homework kept me from spending as much time with my friends – the people who give me love.  I also gave up exercise (the great stress-reducer) partly because I didn’t have the time, but also because I didn’t have the energy. I also didn’t have time or energy to go grocery shopping or cook. All of these things were factors in my snacking. There were physical factors, mental factors, and environmental factors contributing to my low level of health, for which snacking was a coping mechanism. Taking away my coping mechanism without making any other changes simply wasn’t going to work.

The irony in all of this is that I have been studying health all semester.  I began this semester as a “perfect girl,” pushing myself to do it all because working full time while I was in school was a smart career move and the financially responsible thing to do. I made it about halfway through the semester before the “starving daughter” took over. But during this difficult time, I managed to learn some things.

There are a lot of messages out there that tell us that success and achievement are more important than happiness, or even one’s health. Those are the messages I pretty much bought into, and despite my new-found perspective, I still have trouble challenging them. After all, we are a nation of workaholics that tends to view illness as weakness, and obesity as failure.  Even though we often view medicalization as a bad thing, this is one of those times that medicalizing an issue can actually be helpful in overcoming the moral stigma attached to it.  And as Courtney Martin showed us, sociology – looking at “emotional eating” on a society-wide level – can also be a tool for overcoming stigma.

Now that the semester is finally coming to a close, I am committed to making a real lifestyle transformation: the decision to drop to working part-time. While my “perfect girl” cringes at my laziness and self-indulgence, my “starving daughter” is hopeful. With the extra 16 hours a week, I will be able to sleep more, exercise more, and get to the grocery store before it closes. I will be able to see my friends on weekends. Surely it will be a financial hit and probably not the smartest career move, but it is a real step towards reaching balance and achieving mind/body health. It is my hope that by treating the real problem, some of the symptoms – like snacking – will clear up on their own.