How should we reframe the way we think about holiday eating and New Year’s resolutions?


A new year brings a season of change and the opportunity to focus on goals for the future.

For many people, however, resolutions about weight loss and eating can often reinforce negative messages about bodies and prop up unrealistic stereotypes.

Kavita Daiya, a professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, said the most successful New Year’s resolutions focus on self-acceptance and achieving specific active goals – not vague platitudes about weight loss.

Read what Dr. Daiya had to say about body positivity ahead of the holiday season:

Q: There is a lot of talk about bodies and food around the holidays. What impact does that have on how we see ourselves?

A: Yes, the holidays are so much about enjoying food, family and celebration together, and about New Year’s resolutions. Media representations of the holidays and New Year’s resolutions can often reinforce negative and unrealistic body stereotypes, especially in advertising.

As we discussed in my Gender and Media course this fall, a lot of media content is shaped by advertisers, and advertising aims to get us to buy stuff and buy into stuff: hence, for example, the recent Peloton controversy.

Being surrounded by these negative messages that there’s something wrong with how we are right now, and that we need to change or remake ourselves and our bodies to fit an unreal, photoshopped image can be very stressful, to say the least.

Q: How should we reframe the way we think about holiday eating and New Year’s resolutions?

A: First, as we discussed in our class, this reframing is much needed in our society: it begin with an acceptance of self that says, “How I am, and how we are, is fine.” We’re bombarded by images of super-skinny women in our media, when the reality is that nearly 70% of American women wear plus size clothes.

Second, we need to understand that holiday eating is a very, very small percentage of our annual calendar. We should focus on bigger values such as gratitude and family, and enjoying the season.

I believe that New Year’s resolutions should be positive, and I really don’t think they should ever be about your health because it suggests that you can only start in the new year. There is always room for treats in life! Instead of worrying about holiday treats, I prioritize sleep, balance, movement (dancing, running), and fueling my body. I don’t believe in binging for the holidays with a plan to ‘detox’ for the new year—I believe in enjoying the holidays.

The research shows that resolutions about holiday eating will work only if they include self-acceptance. Any resolution in life will work if it’s about achieving a particular active goal: I do better when I aim for being able to run two miles in 20 minutes, than in trying to get to some abstract weight goal.

The former is inspiring and satisfying when you get there—the latter sends me a negative message about where I am now. So, in a way, it’s false advertising too.

Q: How can individuals who want to pursue fitness or weight loss goals in 2020 approach pursuing those goals in a healthy way?

A: As I said above, the best way to pursue fitness goals is to actually get rid of the weight loss goals. We must begin with accepting and celebrating our body diversity, the diversity of our skin colors, our embodiments.

This is us! We discussed the Hulu show Shrill in our course, and we all loved how Annie challenges the obsession with women’s bodies and the pressures on women to look a certain way or be a certain size.

Any goal, whether it is to write a book or to learn how to bench-press 200 pounds (as one of my students can), will succeed if underneath, there’s something positive driving it—an aspiration to grow a strength, experience something new or share an idea.

That’s how I approach it: defining goals in terms of expanding one’s capacities, skills and experiences is likely to be more motivating.

Q: What are some things people can do to begin cultivating better body positivity this holiday season?

A: First, let’s accept and embrace ourselves and others. As the graphic artist and NPR editor Malaka Gharib said to my students when she visited on the last day of class: “You are complete.”

I often see women judging other women, commenting on how they look in negative ways, etc. We need to stop that and call out folks who do that. This might also involve switching off media that reinforces negative body stereotypes and supporting shows that are more thoughtful and progressive about embodiment and diversity.

Q: How should people respond when a friend or relative makes negative comments about another person’s body or food choices during the holidays?

A: This is a tough one. I would say: use a combination of humor and distance. Do your best to find the funny in things. Grandma’s cookies only come around once a year! Distance yourself from the negative people in your social circles and gravitate toward the positive ones. With persistently tone-deaf people you can’t shake, it is possible to say, “What do you mean by that?” or “Why would you say/think that?”

A question like that invites people to self-reflect. If all else fails, one has to say, “When you said that, it was very hurtful to me. Please don’t make comments like that to me again.” I’ve had to say that a couple of times in my life.

I see it as being an act of what author Kim Scott calls “radical candor.” You’re actually doing them a favor by letting them know the impact of their words. If they’re smart, they won’t repeat that mistake in the future, and you’ll have helped them have better relationships with friends and family. Happy holidays!

Suboptimal health behaviors are significant determinants of poor health outcomes. However, the adoption of healthy lifestyles has not been sufficient at the population level, and obesity levels are increasing worldwide.

In addition, the burden of mental health problems is growing [1,2]. Personal electronic health (eHealth) and mobile health (mHealth) interventions have great potential in empowering individuals to take care of their health and well-being in a cost-effective way [3,4].

However, the problem of low user engagement commonly prevents these interventions from achieving their full potential [4,5].

Various computer-tailored eHealth interventions have demonstrated that personalizing the content to the characteristics of individual users tend to be efficacious for promoting healthy behaviors [4,6,7], though engaging the unmotivated proportion of the population, not actively interested in their health, is always challenging [8].

The common tailoring variables found in eHealth or mHealth interventions are health behaviors and the readiness to change behavior [9,10], and some have also considered demographics, clinical risk factors, and personal information needs [11]. However, addressing the motivational factors that influence the attitude toward a healthy lifestyle by personalizing interventions to match the needs, motives, and preferences of individuals could result in more engaging and effective health interventions [4,12].

It is well known, for example, from the experiments conducted based on the theories of reasoned action and planned behavior, that the attitude one holds toward a behavior is one of the key determinants for forming the intention to engage in the behavior (or readiness to change the behavior) [13,14].

Values act as guiding principles in life by determining what is important to people [15,16]. According to Schwartz and Bilsky [17], “values

(a) are concepts or beliefs,

(b) about desirable end states or behaviors,

(c) transcend specific situations,

(d) guide selection or evaluation of behavior and events, and

(e) are ordered by relative importance.” Values are considered as rather stabile motivational characteristics of people, which are related to personality traits [18,19], although changes in value priorities may take place because of changes in life and social conditions [15,18].

As values by definition reflect the motives, needs, and preferences of people, and thereby are one of the factors influencing attitudes [14,20], personalizing eHealth and mHealth interventions according to values may increase the appeal of the interventions and result in higher user engagement. This type of approach has been successfully applied in social marketing, where the message is tailored to the needs and preferences of different target groups [12,21].

To effectively utilize values for personalizing eHealth and mHealth interventions, understanding the relationships between values, well-being, and health behaviors is important. Results of previous studies regarding healthy and unhealthy values in terms of well-being are quite inconsistent (eg, [2224]), and studies focusing on the relationship between values and health behaviors are sparse. This paper aims to contribute to the knowledge of the associations between values and commitment to values combined with well-being and health behaviors observed in the Finnish population.

Previous Work

Commitment to Values and Well-Being

Previous research indicates that living up to the values one holds important is beneficial for subjective well-being (SWB) [22,25,26]. SWB has been considered as a scientific term for happiness, which comprises 3 primary components—positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction [27]. Sharing similar value priorities with one’s social group seems to enhance SWB, as the prevailing environment supports the value-congruent behavior of the person [22,28] and fosters positive interpersonal relationships [29]. Similarly, having values that conflict with social norms may hinder value-congruent behavior [30] and pose a negative influence on SWB [22].

Moreover, people are not always aware of their true, intrinsic value priorities, and differentiating personal values from social expectations may be challenging [26]. Hence, the cognitive process of value clarification and the conscious decision to behave according to or commit to one’s values are sometimes needed for increasing value-congruent behavior and improving well-being [31]. Value clarification and commitment to value-congruent behavior are central concepts in the so-called third wave of cognitive-behavioral therapies [32], which have been effective in treating mental health problems (eg, [33]).

Value Types, Well-Being, and Health Behaviors

Schwartz value theory [34] is an extensively studied value classification system, which originally defined 10 broad value types based on the basic human needs, representing different motive orientations. The values form a circumplex structure with 2 axes—openness to change versus conservation and self-transcendence versus self-enhancement.

Schwartz value types and the value structure have been recognized and verified in more than 65 different countries. Therefore, the theory is considered as near-universal and applicable across different cultures [3436]. However, individual differences in the perceived importance attributed to each value type can be substantial [30]. More recently, a version of 11 Schwartz value types has been applied in research, where the Universalism value is divided into 2 subtypes—Nature and Social concern (eg, [3739]).

A significant amount of research has been focused on the relationships between distinct value types and SWB, (eg, [19,23,24,40,41]). On the basis of the nature of the motivational goals underlying the values, it has been theoretically postulated that values expressing intrinsic goals of autonomy, relatedness, and competence [42] as well as growth needs [18], that is, Self-direction, Stimulation, Universalism, Benevolence, and Achievement, should enhance SWB [22,23].

In contrast, values expressing extrinsic goals such as wealth and fame [42], or deficiency and self-protection needs, that is, Power, Security, Conformity, and Tradition, should have a negative impact on SWB [23,24]. These assumptions were based on early findings, which indicated positive associations of intrinsic goals [43,44] and negative associations of extrinsic goals [43] with SWB.

Recently, Sortheix and Schwartz [24] theorized that values expressing person-focused growth needs (ie, Stimulation, Self-direction, and Hedonism) and the need for relatedness (Benevolence) should be positively associated with SWB. The authors found empirical support for these associations in their large, cross-cultural sample of 32 countries.

However, earlier findings regarding the associations between value types and SWB have been quite inconsistent [19,2224,41]. The most consistent evidence can be found for the negative relationship between valuing Power and SWB [24]. In addition, the observed correlations between the value types and SWB have been mostly weak or moderate [19,2224,41].

The inconsistent findings could be partly explained by the differences found in socioeconomic and cultural contexts, which can either support or constrain individuals in pursuing their values. For instance, the observed relations of Tradition, Universalism, and Achievement with SWB seem to be opposite in countries with high versus low socioeconomic and egalitarian development [24,45].

The research regarding the associations between value types and health behaviors is sparse and scattered across different behaviors. Most of the studies focus on eating habits (the consumption of fruit and vegetables, calorie-dense food, or meat; and eating out habits) and substance usage (alcohol, tobacco, or drugs). Among Australian participants, Universalism has been observed to be associated with healthy eating habits [4649], and Hedonism may be associated with overeating [30].

The associations between values and substance usage have been studied particularly among adolescents. One study observed that smoking behavior was related to valuing broadmindedness, independence, and freedom as well as disvaluing obedience [50]. Another study found that extrinsic aspirations (eg, wealth, fame, and public image) were associated with substance use [51]. However, Young and West [52] concluded in their longitudinal study that values may not predict youngsters’ substance use in the long term.

Some studies report a relationship between values and stress-enhancing, exercise, or certain high-risk health behaviors. Valuing health seems to be more related to behaviors that are preventive of direct (eg, drunk driving and smoking) than indirect (eg, seat belt usage and health information seeking) health risks [53].

Furthermore, a study among youngsters found that the (negative) correlations between valuing exciting life and reporting health-risk preventive behaviors were higher than the (positive) correlations with valuing health, whereas for middle-aged adults valuing health was more related to direct health-risk preventive behaviors than valuing exciting life [54].

In eastern and central Europe, risky sexual behavior has been found to have a moderate but consistent relationship with Achievement, Power, Hedonism, Stimulation, and Self-direction [55]. Hedonism may be associated with stress-relieving (relaxing) behavior, whereas Achievement appears to be associated with stress-enhancing behavior (taking on many commitments) [30]. Universalism has been observed to be associated with regular physical activity [47].

Except for the cross-cultural study of Sortheix and Schwartz [24], the reviewed studies regarding values, well-being, and health-related behaviors were relatively small, involving some hundreds of participants. Furthermore, the studies involved mostly younger adults (students) or teachers, thereby limiting the generalizability of the results. Overall, the evidence for associations between values and well-being is still quite inconsistent, and comprehensive research focusing on a multitude of health-related behaviors is lacking.

This Study

This study aims to discover the associations between self-reported values (commitment to values and value priorities), perceived well-being, and various self-reported health behaviors from a large, cross-sectional dataset of open Web-survey responses, available from more than 100,000 Finnish citizens. The data were collected as part of the Finnish Happiness-Flourishing Study (FHFS), which was a national effort to promote mental well-being and healthy behaviors in the Finnish population [56].

The survey included questions assessing various dimensions of well-being and several different health behaviors. The measures for well-being factors included happiness, depression, life satisfaction, impact of major negative and positive life events on happiness, family- and work-related distress, and communal social activity.

The health behavior–related factors comprised exercise, intake of fruits and vegetables, sleep hours, alcohol consumption, and smoking. The data regarding personal values were unstructured including free-text responses.

We adopted an exploratory approach for the data analysis to study whether (1) commitment to values was related to well-being, (2) certain value types could be considered healthier than others in terms of their associations with well-being or health-related behaviors, and (3) previous findings could be replicated with the extensive data at hand.

On the basis of previous research, we hypothesized positive associations between well-being and commitment to values [26] as well as between well-being and the value types reflecting intrinsic goals of relatedness and person-focused growth needs [24,43]. Value types reflecting extrinsic aspirations or deficiency needs were expected to be negatively associated with well-being [24]. Associations between value types and health-related behaviors were also expected, especially between Universalism, healthy eating, and regular exercise (eg, [47]).

George Washington University
Media Contacts:
Kristen Mitchell – George Washington University


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