Still Accepted, Blatantly Outdated

The following post is re-blogged from Smarts and Stamina, written by my friend, Marie-Josée Shaar, a wellness expert, speaker, author, and all-around motivator. I know you’ll enjoy her insights into what we can all do to change some deeply ingrained but oh-so unhealthy habits that permeate our way of life.


Do you remember the anxiety of being picked last for the basketball team in phys ed? Or the pressure of doing an oral presentation right after the coolest kid around in English class? Of course you do! Such events threatened your fundamental need to belong, and so they impacted you deeply at the time they happened.

The desire to fit in is a powerful shaper of behavior. In some cases, social pressures serve us well. Just think that 20 or 30 years ago, the following behaviors were not only commonplace, but widely accepted: smoking in public places, drinking and driving, littering, riding in a car without a seat belt or on a motorcycle without a helmet, and unprotected sex.

I’m so glad things have changed!

In other cases, social pressures are lagging behind their times. Take the following list of examples, which are still widely accepted, but that really have to go out the window, and fast (I could easily list 10 other examples of unacceptable but accepted behaviors, but these are my personal pet peeves):

  • Sleep: We still glorify sleep deprivation, as if it were a sign of being needed, successful, needed and irreplaceable. But in reality, when I hear someone brag about their sleep debt, what I hear is “I am temporarily and reversibly mentally-impaired, but I’m too groggy to realize it.”
  • Food: We still think it’s OK to twist somebody else’s arm so they eat something unhealthy, or so they eat past satiation. “Come on, just one piece of brownie won’t kill you!” We all have enough of a hard time all on our own resisting temptations, thank you very much. What we need is someone to applaud our self-discipline, not a guilt trip so we eat like a Sumo.
  • Mood: Few ignore how pervasive, contagious, and detrimental stress can be, yet we all sink in our seats when someone spreads unnecessary stress around. No one benefits when we accept others dumping their garbage around as they please, so why are we still silent?
  • ExerciseSitting is the new smoking. There’s new research coming out every month about the dangers of our sedentary lifestyles – see this Washington Post infographic for one example. Yet social convention pressures us into spending long days participating in endless meetings without daring to request a chance to refresh our minds and bodies through a little healthy movement.

Improving Norms

How can we start shifting things so that the unhealthy norms just listed can become a thing of the past, much like smoking in public places and drinking and driving did?

Most people are willing to change when they see a clear personal benefit in the proposed change, and when they are convinced that those around them are implementing the change as well, says the World Bank.

In general, we have the first portion of that equation covered: most people understand that sleeping enough, eating right and moving more will help them be at their best and avoid undesirable health conditions. Our challenge lies not in promoting individual reasons for change, but in challenging what’s considered normal social behavior, and in defining new norms.

Let’s consider 2 examples where social pressure was used successfully in implementing healthier norms.

Concerns of Teen PregnancyA North Carolina pro­gram aimed at pre­venting teenage preg­nancy used the tagline ‘Talk to Your Kids About Sex. Everyone else is.’ (DuRant et al, 2006)This message created a tension that became more uncomfortable than the uncomfortable conversation itself. Who would want their kid to be the only one uninformed about important issues that affect people their age? The following phone survey found that parents who had been exposed to this cam­paign were more likely to talk to their teens about sex the next month.

In another exper­i­ment, researchers looked at the influ­ence of social norms on house­hold energy con­sump­tion (Schultz et al, 2007). Households who were consuming under the average for that area received feedback along with a happy face, conveying social approval of their energy use. Those who were consuming above average received their feedback with a sad face, conveying dis­ap­proval of their higher footprint. In the fol­lowing months, the over-consuming house­holds reduced their energy use while the under-consuming house­holds kept their usage levels the unchanged.

These 2 experiments suggest that social norms can be effective motivators for behavior change, and I’d like to explore how to use them for the greater good. If you are concerned that following others is a shallow extrinsic motivation that won’t last, let me remind you that the desire to fit in is a powerful intrinsic motivation, and that’s what I’m trying to tap into here. Plus, healthy behaviors help us feel good. Once they are in place, they are often self-reinforcing.

Creating Positive Pressures in Your Organization

 If you’d like to experiment with social pressure as a behavioral change motivator, be careful not to state that the behavior you’re trying to extinguish is the current norm. For example, a campaign declaring “we’re all eating very large portions around here, let’s reduce them” would reinforce the social acceptability of overeating, and your efforts would backfire. Instead, make the desired behavior center stage: “We’re all trying to eat less. Let’s help each other out.”

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions to address the pet peeves I have identified above:

  • Sleep: host a lunch and learn about the importance of sleep and encourage your participants to respond to those who brag about their sleep deprivation with an equally boastful statement of how well they slept lately, and how refreshed they feel as a result.
  • Food: A lot of good eating intentions are sapped by the sugary snacks brought to the break room by well-meaning colleagues who didn’t want to eat a whole batch of cookies on their own. Tom Rath suggests throwing away our extras rather than taking them to work. Perhaps you could talk to your colleagues and agree on a new norm, such as “If it’s not healthy enough for you, it’s not good enough for your colleagues either.” Or perhaps you could start a group competition to see who can tweak favorite recipes to make them “a tad lighter in calories and richer in healthy nutrients,” as we describe in the Be Sneaky chapter of the Smarts and Stamina book.
  • Mood: Here’s a stat worth sharing, and which can put a little pressure on the energy vampires at your organization: according to this Harvard Business Review article, 90% of anxiety at work is created by 5% of one’s network. Share this information again and again, until everyone in the organization is familiar with it, so that everyone takes a good look in the mirror (whether they do so out of their own initiative, or whether someone else puts the mirror right in front of them).
  • Exercise: Meeting leaders will often start things out by making a statement about why the group has been gathered together. Very often, that statement is followed by a question: “Does that sound good to everyone? Anything else you’d like to add?” Here’s your opportunity to add a little social pressure. “Sure, and I’d like us to make sure everyone is contributing to the best of their ability throughout the meeting by allowing everyone to stand up/to enjoy a stretching break each hour.” Ta-da! Tough to say no to that!

Before I go, let me clarify: I am not suggesting that we ostracize those who adopt or even promote unhealthy behaviors. But I would like to see more of us wellness leaders skillfully and emphatically use social pressure to reject behaviors we know to be harmful, and thus craft healthier norms for everyone. In other words, I’d rather ruffle a few feathers if need be and press our norms to evolve than maintain a status quo we now know to be blatantly outdated.

Photo credits:

Large portions courtesy of  emdot
Pregnancy concerns courtesy of artur84


DuRant, R.H., Wolfson, M., LeFrance, B., Balkrishan, R. & Altman, D. (2006). An eval­u­ation of a mass media cam­paign to encourage par­ents of adoles­cents to talk to their chil­dren about sex. Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (3) 298–309.

Pollay, D. (2012). The Law of the Garbage Truck: How to Stop People from Dumping on You. Sterling Press.

Rath, T. (2013). Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. Arlington, VA: Missionday.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The con­structive, destructive, and recon­structive power of social norms. Psychological Science18(5), 429–434.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.


Food for Thought — Three TED Talk Recommendations

TED talks are a great way to absorb short, pithy and compelling lectures from the experts. Here are a few informative standouts in the fight against chronic disease.

Mark Bittman: What’s wrong with what we eat?
NY Times columnist, not a vegetarian, but author of Food Matters and VB6: Vegetarian before Six, Bittman talks eloquently about the western diet’s link to chronic disease, and the history of food in the US.

David Agus: A new strategy in the war against cancer
A cancer doctor who laments the complete lack of progress in our fight against cancer in the last 50 years, and suggests a new cross-disciplinary approach.

Dr. Dean Ornish: Your genes are not your fate
“When you eat healthier, manage stress, exercise, and love more, your brain actually gets more blood flow and more oxygen, but more than that your brain gets measurably bigger.” Ornish describes the undeniable, cellular benefits of healthy living.

Do you have others to recommend? Please tell us about them in the comment section.

Starving Cancer, Eating Healthy, Anti Angiogenesis

In the fight against chronic disease, researchers have begun to take a broader view; looking for common denominators. They have found one in abnormal angiogenesis.

“Angio” means vessel and “genesis” refers to formation or origin – so angiogenesis refers to the formation of new blood vessels in the body. That sounds like a normal thing for the body to do. Yet, healthy humans only form new blood vessels to heal a wound (blood vessels form under the scab), or when pregnant or prior to menstruating. Our bodies succumb to certain diseases when the growth of new blood vessels is out of balance.

A growing list of more than 70 diseases — including obesity, cancers, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, age-related blindness — share angiogenesis as a trait

In his TED talk, William Li, PhD, MD, President and Director of the Angiogenesis Foundation, describes the role of angiogenesis in the proliferation of cancer cells. Since tumors require their own blood supply to grow any larger than the tip of a ballpoint pen, cutting off angiogenesis starves the tumor. Can We Eat to Starve Cancer? is a MUST SEE talk – full of hopeful information about the future of cancer treatment, as well as advice on what we can do to prevent or slow the disease.

Dietary Sources of Naturally-Occurring Anti Angiogenic Substances

Li’s research approaches angiogenesis from a dietary perspective, studying which foods are angiogenesis inhibitors. No surprise they are the same health-promoting anti-inflammatory super foods we eat for their vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. Better yet, consuming a variety of  these fruits, vegetables, spices, and oils gives a synergistic boost to their health-giving properties.


Some forms of cancer are currently treated with anti angiogenic drugs, and as research continues, pharmaceutical companies are introducing new treatments to the market.  Most are used in conjunction with conventional therapies of chemotherapy and radiation. 

Please watch the TED talk and continue to eat (or up your intake of) whole plant-based foods.


The Angiogenesis Foundation

Eat to Beat Cancer™ Anti-Angiogenesis: Cutting Off Tumor Supply Lines. July 12, 2013. by Michael Greger, MD.

The Wall Street Journal. The Angiogenesis Foundation Presents Concept of Antiangiogenic Foods at IFT 2013 Annual Meeting + Food Expo. July 16, 2013.

WebMD. A Cure for Cancer? New Anticancer Drugs Living Up to Promise; A look at angiogenesis inhibitors, experimental cancer treatments. March 10, 2000. by Denise Mann.

Beet Juice for People Who Hate Beets

I just created a New Year’s Resolution. It’s too late, you say? Well, conveniently, it’s something I’ve been doing successfully for the first two weeks of January, so I thought I’d make it official. Why not?

I’m working on eating more vegetables and being adventurous about trying new varieties that I’ve been pretty convinced I hate. This is greatly enabled by my new juicer. My family will only eat so many kale salads and my kids have a lot more veggie aversions than do I.


So the other day I tentatively bought some dirt-caked, but beautiful, beets at the farmer’s market. I created the following juice, which I’ve dubbed:

Beet Juice for People Who Hate Beets
3 small beets
4 small carrots
4 small or 2 large Granny Smith apples
½ lemon, peeled and seeded


It was delicious and one of the most beautiful colors under the rainbow! Here’s the proof.

I especially wanted to try beets because they are loaded with vitamins and minerals, namely: potassium, magnesium, fiber, phosphorus, iron; vitamins A, B & C; beta-carotene, beta-cyanine, and folic acid. Beets are also a unique source of phytonutrients called betalains that provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification support. They help lower blood pressure, suppress tumor growth, cleanse the liver and purifying the blood.

As I was drinking my juice, I read an article about a study on the role of fruit and vegetable intake in fighting prostate cancer after diagnosis. It’s underway now and is jointly funded by Prostate Cancer Foundation, the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Department of Defense. I emailed the article to my father who was diagnosed a few years ago. My mother says he doesn’t willingly eat a fruit or vegetable unless it’s placed on the plate before him. Maybe I should get him a juicer!

Here’s another take on beet juice (Berry Red Beet Juice) from Love and Lentils.

The Pleasure Trap – Salt, Sugar and Fat


Do you have a sweet tooth? What about a fat tooth? I have a salt tooth. I never dust the excessive salt off my pretzels. My family automatically hands me the pickles from their plates when eating sandwiches in restaurants. I love mustard…and popcorn…and a good tangy vinaigrette.

My blood pressure is normal, so I don’t worry much about my salt fetish, but I sometimes think dinner tastes bland when my family thinks it’s fine. That’s a sign the salt receptors on my tongue are ramped up. My taste buds need a little more salt than average to register “yum” in my brain.

courtesy of Apolonia /

courtesy of Apolonia /

For many of us, this is true for salt as well as sugar. Now scientists believe it can happen with fat too. Just like salt and sugar, a special receptor on our tongues registers the taste of fat. We naturally crave all three, yet the levels of these substances that give us pleasure can get dangerously out of whack. The more salt, sugar, and fat we consume, the more we want. It’s the opposite of familiarity breeds contempt. We’re numbing our taste buds through overstimulation. If we are used to enjoying salted caramel ice cream (a trifecta of salt, sugar and fat), then a stalk of celery or a handful of unsalted nuts may no longer excite us.

Unfortunately the processed food industry just keeps packing salt, sugar and fat into our snacks, feeding our addictions and leading us into what psychologist Douglas Lisle calls the Pleasure Trap. If “healthy” foods don’t appeal to you – you’re probably a victim of numbed taste buds. There is hope! You’re not genetically programmed to hate cauliflower, but your taste buds probably have been well-trained to prefer a plate of nachos.

When we do something that feels good, researchers have found that certain areas in our brains light up as the neurotransmitter dopamine floods the system. Naturally, we want to do that thing again and again to recreate that feel good sensation. This can get some of us into trouble when it comes to drugs, alcohol, sex or gambling. But all of us experience a dopamine high when we eat delicious foods. So of course we have a hard time denying ourselves chocolate cake when we know how sensational it feels to take that first bite.



Surprisingly, it takes only a few weeks of healthy eating to begin desensitizing your palette. The first step is to consciously and gradually decrease your intake of your particular vice. Let’s say it’s sugar. As you cut back on sweets, you’ll crave them less, and need smaller amounts of sugar to light up the pleasure centers in your brain. Once your taste buds are recalibrated, you will be better able to appreciate not only the sweetness of a ripe melon, but also the deliciousness of a delicate asparagus (without butter, oil or salt).

By limiting calorie-dense restaurant meals, sugary treats,  fatty snacks, and salt-laden processed foods you are NOT sentencing yourself to a future of a bland and unsatisfying diet. Remember that the longer you replace the bad choices with healthy, fresh, and unprocessed foods, the better they will taste.


If  you’d like to learn more about how to regulate your body’s hormones, like dopamine and cortisol, be sure to sign up for my workshop — Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. It begins in just FIVE days, on January 14th. It’s a six-week, self-paced online workshop based on the Smarts and Stamina model. (See more about the Smarts and Stamina work book in the sources below).




Lisle, Douglas J. and Goldhammer, Alan. (2006) The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness. Healthy Living Publications, Tennessee. Want to be Healthier? Change Your Taste Buds. January 8, 2014. by Michael Greger, MD.

Nutrition Wonderland. Understanding our Bodies: Dopamine and Its Rewards, July 31, 2009. by Christie Wilcox.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

WebMD. Got a Fat Tooth? We may be programmed to crave fatty foods, but there are ways to get satisfaction without harming our health. by Karen Bruno.