For our 45th anniversary the Foundation held a conference entitled Behaviour change in relation to healthier lifestyles to explore how to encourage effective behaviour change in the areas of eating and physical activity behaviours. Below are 10 key points from the day 

  1. Before trying to change behaviour it is vital to try to understand the nature of the behaviour you want to change in a real-life context.
  2. The characteristics of healthy eating and physical activity behaviours are quite different; healthy eating involves being able to restrain and hold back our natural preferences for energy dense foods, while increasing physical activity involves more proactive ‘doing’ behaviours. This needs to be taken into account if trying to change both behaviours in a single intervention. 
  3. When talking to people about their behaviour, health professionals need to listen, eliciting what is important to that person in relation to the behaviour in question and what they think about the potential for change. When they are ready they can then be encouraged by the health professional to define their specific goals for potential change.
  4. How much a person talks positively about changing behaviour can predict actual behaviour change, as can the level of empathy in the health professional. Motivational interviewing techniques can be used to encourage this ‘change talk.’
  5. Obesity can be defined as a chronic relapsing condition. Weight loss produces physiological changes in the body which tend to push individuals to regain the lost weight. The behaviours required to successfully maintain weight loss are different to those needed to lose weight and include high levels of physical activity and low levels of TV watching.
  6. There is a large emotional component underlying obesity and weight control. Emotional support needs to be part of weight loss interventions in order for them to be successful.
  7. Development of taste preferences begins very early in life during breast feeding and weaning into early childhood. Children who have not developed ‘taste bridges’ from our innate preferences for sweet, energy dense foods to non-sweet nutrient-rich foods with a lower energy density (e.g. vegetables) can struggle to develop healthy eating patterns. However, although it is ideal to establish healthy eating patterns during early life, all of childhood can be a window for change.
  8. Adults make about 200 decisions about food each day but only a small proportion of these are under conscious control (14 on average). This means that interventions that encourage change on a conscious level will be limited by the fact that so many of these choices are made on an unconscious level. 
  9. It is important that those in the fields of physical activity and nutrition science also involve psychologists when planning strategies to change behaviour.
  10. The threat system in the brain, which is designed to protect us from potential harm, can dominate and lead to unhealthy self-criticism and low self-esteem, hampering attempts at behaviour change. Encouraging a more compassionate approach to oneself and learning to deal positively with failure can help to alleviate negative, self-critical feelings which prevent change and support healthy behaviour change. 
Last reviewed 13/07/2012. Next due for review by 13/07/2015 


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