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  • Writer's pictureBarbara J. Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

We are in the business of changing behaviors. What makes us more effective?

the words theory and practice with arrows going back and forth

As nutrition professionals, and as nutrition communicators specifically, we are in the behavior change business. Think about it… We not only want people to know that fruits and vegetables are “good for them” – we want them to eat fruits and vegetables. Daily.

Yes. Whatever our practice setting, ultimately, our objective is to move people in the direction of health and wellness. In other words, to practice healthy behaviors.

To accomplish this effectively requires an understanding of behavior and what drives behavior change.

To practice a desired behavior, do people simply need to know something, such as fruits and vegetables are good for them? Or do they also need to acquire a positive attitude about eating fruits and vegetables? Are there motivators and barriers that need to be considered? What leads to sustained behavior change?

What is the relationship between knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors?

You may recall learning about the relationship of Knowledge – Attitude – Behavior in a psychology or educational methods class. All three variables exert a potentially powerful influence on the other two.

The acquisition of knowledge can promote behavior change, which is enhanced by positive changes in attitude about the behavior and potential outcomes.

Positive attitudes, often referred to as mindset, can influence behavior in a positive direction, as well as promote the acquisition and retention of knowledge.

Positive behaviors can generate positive attitudes and in turn a desire to gain and retain knowledge.

The opposite of all three of the above statements also holds true. Ignorance, coupled with a poor attitude, can lead to negative behaviors.

Tools such as Bloom’s Taxonomy provide us with approaches to measure one’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Does improvement in one area always lead to improvements in the other two? Often, but not necessarily. Behavior change is more complex. We need more to work with…

Why do we need to utilize behavior change theories for effective nutrition communication?

Behavior change theories help us understand human behavior as well as what motivates and hinders behavior change. They are usually depicted as models illustrating the relationship of various constructs and how they describe or influence behavior change.

The authors of Chapter 12 in Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide put it this way:

“Designing nutrition communications with behavior change theories in mind takes the simple act of educating consumers about a topic to a new level – one that moves people beyond the mental processes of acquiring information to actually applying information to improve health and well-being.”

Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, PhD, RD, FAND and Virginia Quick, PhD, RDN

How can we use behavior change theories?

No one theory fully explains human behavior. Each theory reveals a part of the whole story. Some describe how behavior change progresses. Others describe the factors that influence change. Others describe how decision-making influences behavior change.

Each theory can serve as a useful tool, providing insights nutrition communicators need to understand an audience and promote positive change.

Follow along in the upcoming series of posts, based on Chapter 12 in Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide, to learn about behavior change theories and how to put them into practice.

Next week, we will explore the process of behavior change and two of the most popular theories used to understand this process: The Transtheoretical, or Stages of Change, Model and The Precaution-Adoption Process Model.

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” ~ Kurt Lewin, Founding Father of Social Psychology

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