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You Are What You Think

Bridget Swinney, MS RD
By Bridget Swinney, MS RD

I’ve been accused of being an eternal optimist, which unfortunately, sometimes does get in the way of reality. But a recent discussion about optimism got me thinking about positive thinking and how it impacts health.

We often say, “you are what you eat.” But it’s also true that your thoughts, negative or positive, can also significantly affect health as well as health behavior change.

Optimism vs Pessimism

The terms are used to describe people’s general outlook and expectations concerning their future.  Optimists are people who believe that good things will happen in the future. Optimism is different from other psychological traits like sense of control, self-efficacy and hope, which can also affect health. Pessimists, on the other hand, generally feel that bad things are more likely to happen than good things. Both traits develop during childhood and early adulthood and are influenced both by childhood experiences and heredity.

The Research

  • Optimism has been identified as a key trait for healthy behavior. Optimistic people are more likely to have healthy behaviors like regular physical activity, drinking moderately and avoiding smoking. In the Women’s Health Initiative Observation Study and the Women’s Health Initiative Clinical Trial, optimism was associated with a healthier diet at baseline and with change to healthier eating habits after intervention. However, the strongest change toward healthier eating happened in the control group, which suggested that an optimistic attitude may be most powerful for behavior change when there isn’t a formal intervention. Optimists are also more likely to adhere to medical advice—which goes a long way in staying healthy!
  • In a recent Finnish study of older adults, pessimism was associated with a less healthy diet at baseline. At the end of the study, a higher level of pessimism was associated with more difficulty in improving dietary habits.
  • A study of middle-aged men and women in the MIDUS study found that optimism was associated with a higher blood antioxidant level. Fruit and vegetable intake and smoking status partially explained the increased levels. The researchers concluded that “optimists are likely to engage in health behaviors associated with more serum antioxidants, and more serum antioxidants are likely associated with better physical health that enhances optimism.”

Yes, You Can Learn Optimism

Psychologist Martin Seligman, considered to be the “father of positive psychology” introduced the concept of “Learned Optimism.”  Dr. Seligman’s approach is called the “ABCDE” approach to learned optimism and it goes like this:

Adversity: is a negative situation that you respond to.

For example, this month, you decide to make dietary changes to lose weight, but have not lost any weight.

Belief: How do you interpret the situation? What do you tell yourself?

If you learn toward pessimism, you might think: “I’m just not good at following diets—I guess I’ll never lose weight.”

Consequence: How do you respond to that line of thinking?

If you believe that you’ll never be able to lose weight, you might stop trying, thinking there’s no use.

Dispute: Here is where you can make the effort to argue against your current belief in yourself.

You might think back and realize that you were actually really good at making diet changes at breakfast and dinner, you just dropped off at lunch. Or maybe you did great during the week but blew it over the weekend. Think about what you did succeed at, instead of what you failed at.

Energize: How do you feel after you challenged your beliefs?

Now that you see losing weight is not hopeless, you might feel more energized and motivated to tweak your current strategies and keep working toward your goal. 

If you always look at the glass as “half empty” there is lots of help out there with books and websites devoted to Learned Optimism:

Bridget Swinney, MS RD
Bridget Swinney is a health communicator, award-winning author and well-regarded nutrition expert specializing in teaching people to embrace a healthier diet and lifestyle. In her 25 years as a registered dietitian, she has worked in public health, as a clinical...Read More
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