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Beyond Information and Towards Behaviour Change

Beyond Information and Towards Behaviour Change
Our next #30in30 #nutritionmonth blog post is from Sydney Massey, MPH, RD. Thank you for submitting!
Our experience with the nutrient labels on food packages is but one example of the maxim, "Information is not enough." This maxim alone has helped me come a long way toward becoming a more effective nutrition educator. Below, I will briefly outline a few elements of effective nutrition education helpful for materials development, education sessions in group settings or one-to-one counseling situations. As you read, think about a recent nutrition education experience and whether these elements were addressed. Information is not enough!
In the case of nutrition labeling, the purpose is to help a consumer make a purchasing choice. In a major collaborative study in the early 1990’s, the Canadian National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) examined how well consumers understood nutrition information on labels, and how they used it to make purchase decisions. They found that the information placed on packages had little influence on the consumer's decision of what to buy. While 70% of consumers considered nutrition to be extremely important or very important, and two-thirds of the sample claimed to read food packages as a source of nutrition information, only one person in four used the nutrition panel in actual product selection. Focus group work and in-depth one-on-one interviews with over 800 consumers revealed that consumers wanted to be able to understand the information already present on labels.  
Be careful in responding to people's desire for more information. People frequently ask for more information, when really they are desperately seeking to better understand the information already provided. Ask yourself, what is the purpose of your educational efforts? As dietitians and nutritionists, our goal is most often to help clients improve their dietary intake. Don't lose sight of this goal in responding to the requests for information.
It is all too easy to overload clients with information. It is much harder to limit ourselves to providing merely the information the learner needs to know in order to do what he or she has decided to do. Any information beyond this is nice to know. The concept of information overload is summed up by maxim #2: Provide the need-to-know information; limit the nice-to-know information. 
The moment the learner makes a choice as to what to do, we move beyond information and towards behaviour change. It is the learner who must make the choice. If the educator decides what the learner must do, it is less likely that there will be a behaviour change. That is because a choice we make is likely to be interesting or important to us—and not necessarily to the learner. It is our job, however, to provide the learner with good choices—choices that our professional knowledge tells us will help the learner toward the goal. But, it is the learner's job to ultimately choose what he or she will do:
Educator: Your dietary assessment shows that you aren’t getting enough calcium by eating the way you do now. Here is a list of calcium-rich foods. (Educator provides choices.)

Are there any foods on this list that you think you would eat? (Learner chooses.)
There are two things to notice in the above example. First, the educator only presented the information necessary to help the learner increase calcium in the diet. The educator did not explain how calcium is laid down in the bone, the interactions between calcium and oxalates, the significance (or lack) of the calcium:phosphorus ratio, and so on. Secondly, the educator did not stop at the point of handing the list of calcium-rich foods to the client. The task of education is only beginning when the learner makes a choice.
Maxim #3 will help you remember the element of choice: It is the educator's job to provide good choices; it is the learner's job to choose what to do.

Have you ever asked, "How can I motivate my clients to stick to their diet?" The astonishing reply to this question is that you probably can't give someone else motivation. You can, however, help people discover the motivation intrinsic to them. People will act on that motivation if they feel that the accomplishment will be meaningful and relevant to themselves and that they will be successful at what they do. In the words of maxim #4: Motivation comes from success.
By allowing the learner to choose what to do, we are helping to fulfill the meaningful/relevant aspect of discovering motivation. Our job then becomes ensuring that the learner will have a sense that they can do whatever they have chosen to do. This sense of "can do" is achieved not by having lots of information, but by having lots of practice in the skills needed.
Nutrition Month 2016 urges us to Take a 100 Meal Journey: Make small changes one meal at a time. The best way we can help people with this direction is by providing practice with the changes our clients have chosen, rather than burden them with information beyond what they need to know to start on that 100 meal journey.
Sydney Massey is Director of Nutrition Education for the BC Dairy Association. She has been working with the BC Dairy Association in nutrition education for over 30 years. Her experience extends from working with teachers and students in the K-12 school system as well as to working with adults in public health and community settings.
She graduated with honors from Barnard College in her native city, New York, with a degree in Linguistics. She went on to earn a Masters in Public Health in nutrition from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill and is a Registered Dietitian.


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