The Science Behind Maintaining Your Motivation to Eat Healthy

Keeping your motivation to eat healthy is no easy task. But research shows an extra 5 minutes thinking about your goals and obstacles increases your chances for success. Here’s how to do it.

The devil on your shoulder screams in your ear to dig into the plate of cheesey nachos or grab a couple hot-from-the-oven cookies. And the angel on the other shoulder gently reminds you to keep your hands in your lap. Will the louder devil win, or will the good angel save the day – and your cholesterol level?

According to the science of motivation, who wins the nacho or cookie tug-of-war has lots to do with how you thought about and planned for the situation. And it’s not just about positive thinking. Or willpower, because willpower is way overrated.

You can give the angel more power

Imagine your confidence knowing you’re armed with the power to stick to your healthy lifestyle goals most of the time.

I see your smile as you picture yourself strong and in control to reach your dreams and goals. So let’s get to it!

Woman showing confidence and motivation to eat healthy

Yes! Celebrate and show that confidence/ © Can Stock Photo / lzf

We need to fill the gap between wanting healthy habits and performing healthy habits with motivation, changes in mindset, changes in the environment, and new strategies and skills. Today’s topic is motivation, but specifically, how to keep up your motivation to eat healthy when motivation naturally waxes and wanes.

To keep my motivation up, I’ve been WOOPing my life. Here’s how.

Motivation to eat healthy

-what the science says

In her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, psychologist and researcher Gabriele Oettingen makes a strong case for taking a mere 5 minutes extra to boost your motivation and chances for success. She argues that positive thinking alone lessens your likelihood for success, so she added and studied two additional components. She merged positive thinking with a healthy dose of reality and a plan. This, she claims, energizes and motivates you to take action – even subconsciously.

I heard about Oettingen and WOOP on an episode of The Happiness Lab. I was so intrigued that I bought Oettingen’s book and started WOOPing. Her research shows WOOP is a strategy worthy of your efforts. And my own success is another indicator that WOOP can work.

How to WOOP

Oettingen teaches folks to use this strategy for all types of goals – health, professional, relationships, school, and more. Research shows WOOP has helped people with type 2 diabetes self-manage their disease better and has helped others improve their eating, lose weight, be more physically active, improve time management, do better in school and more. I’ve used the technique for a variety of work and lifestyle domains, but I’ll discuss it in terms of your health (and mine).

WOOP is less about rational thinking and list-making and more about picturing images in your mind and concentrating on them. I wouldn’t say it’s better than rational thinking; it should be in addition to rational thinking (like the Super Simple Strategy to Keep You From Falling Off the Healthy Eating Wagon). Another way it differs from other strategies is WOOP is about internal obstacles and solutions. I spend between 5 and 10 minutes for each WOOP. Here are the 4 parts of WOOP.

W: Wish – In the next day, week, or month, what is your most important health wish? Write it down in a few words.

O: Outcome – If you fulfill this wish, what is the best possible outcome? How will you feel after meeting this health goal? The feeling part here is critical. Write down the outcome in a few words. Then sit quietly imagining this feeling. Let your mind go. I like to close my eyes imagining my great success and how amazing I feel.

O: Obstacle – What is your biggest internal obstacle to achieving your wish? Which of your behaviors or emotions hold you back from fulfilling your wish? Focus on what is inside of you. For example, when a client tells me she doesn’t prepare fish at home because her husband complains of the odor, she’s focusing on something external – her husband. But if she tells me she feels guilty preparing something he doesn’t enjoy, she’s focusing on something internal – her feeling of guilt. Write down your inner obstacle in a few words. Now close your eyes and imagine your inner obstacle in as much detail as possible. See yourself in this exact situation. See your actions, facial expressions and your emotions.

P: Plan – What can you do to overcome your inner obstacle? Write it down in the form of an If/then statement. If the obstacle occurs, then I will do this action or think this thought. Read your If/then statement to yourself slowly while picturing yourself performing it.

And that’s all there is to it! Oettingen claims that the WOOP process automatically energizes you to take action, even if you’re not fully aware of your enhanced motivation.

I’ve used WOOP for both long-term and short-term wishes.  For example, I WOOPed my wish to improve my cholesterol levels over a 3-month period and to eat only a measured amount of chocolate or to drink no alcohol over 24 hours.

A WOOP example – how I kept my motivation to eat healthy

Here’s one of my 100% successful WOOPs.

Wish: Eat only 1 small Mother’s Day treat (naturally, I chose dessert with chocolate over other treats).

Outcome: I’ll enjoy my meal and time with my girls without feeling like I let myself down. I’ll feel confident. (I closed my eyes and imagined this in great detail.)

Obstacle: I justify that Mother’s Day is my special day and this one time won’t hurt. (Again, with my eyes closed, I  pictured myself doing this.)

Plan: If I justify that Mother’s Day is my special day and this one time won’t hurt, then I will remind myself I’m happier when I live my values.

healthy comfort food white whole wheat chocolate chip banana bread

Sweet, chocolatey and delicious!

Key to my success was carefully and fully imagining Mother’s Day with my daughters, the meal, my tendency to justify “just this once,” and the confidence and pleasure I’d feel when I’m successful with my goal.

Get your own WOOP worksheet and start WOOPing today!


I also used WOOP today to write this blog post. My wish was to stay focused for two hours. My inner obstacle was my bad habit of checking my email or social media. And yay! So far, I haven’t checked either!

For you science nerds, you can see research about WOOP in the scientific literature under its scientific name: Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII). I can see why Oettingen calls it WOOP for the rest of us.

If you want to lose weight, lower your blood sugar, or win at the cookie tug-of-war, WOOP is worth a try. More than 20 years of research says so. What do you think? Will WOOP help you maintain your motivation to eat healthy? Try it and let me know. I created a WOOP worksheet just for you (and me) based on Oettingen’s work.

Download your worksheet & WOOP today

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Jill Weisenberger

I'm Jill, and I believe simple changes in your mindset and health habits can bring life-changing rewards. And I don't believe in willpower. It's waaaay overrated. As a food-loving registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist and certified health and wellness coach, I've helped thousands of people solve their food and nutrition problems. If you're looking for a better way to master this whole healthy eating/healthy living thing or if you're trying to prevent or manage diabetes or heart problems, you'll find plenty of resources right here.

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  1. Janna on August 26, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    I just did this for a couple goals I have. Really helpful advice, as always!

    • Jill Weisenberger on August 27, 2020 at 10:38 am

      Let me know how it goes!

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Hi there! I'm Jill, a nutrition & diabetes expert and the author of 4 books.

Jill Weisenberger

I believe simple changes in health habits can bring you life-changing rewards.

And I believe willpower is way overrated.

Right here is where you can discover the mindset and habits to stick with healthy lifestyle choices most of the time - and drop the guilt when you don't.

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