3 Behavior Change Myths Every Dietitian Needs to Know

Contributed and Written by Laura Koller, Registered Dietitian from Transform RD.

If you think successful behavior change is about simply telling your clients what to do and expecting them to do it, then I’ve got news for you: that’s an outdated approach to client education and there are better options available.

In this post, we’ll explore 3 of the most common behavior change myths among dietitians as well as several evidence-based behavior change strategies you can use to help your clients achieve lasting change.


Behavior Change Myth #1: Information changes behaviors

Back when I was first training to become a dietitian, telling patients what to do was the thing to do. Knowledge is power, right?

We all thought it worked, and to some extent it did. That’s why this approach to nutrition education is so commonly used. (That, plus it’s easy to just tell people what to do, give them the right handout, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.)

However, it turns out that simply sharing your nutrition expertise isn’t as expert as it sounds when it comes to empowering your clients to achieve lasting change.

The main reason?

Knowing something and doing something are two completely different skills.

If knowledge changed behaviors, then more people would exercise than binge-watch Netflix, eat broccoli instead of ice cream, and get eight hours of sleep every night.

We all do certain things even though we know we’re “supposed” to be doing something different.

Which means if you want to help your clients change their behaviors, you can’t just give them information and expect that’s all they need to succeed.


What to do instead

Talk with your clients about building habits.

When clients focus on repeating the behaviors they want to be doing each day, they can eventually automate those behaviors so they no longer need constant reminders. That’s the benefit of building consistent habits.

So if you want to help your clients build new habits, here’s the approach I recommend:

With your client, brainstorm a few behaviors for achieving a certain goal. Then ask them to choose one of the behaviors and make a plan for when and where they can do it each day.

Later, when you follow up with the client, ask them how things are going and help them to modify the plan as needed.

This approach succeeds because your client now has a specific plan for action. Instead of expecting them to formulate a plan on their own, you’ve collaborated with them ahead of time. They’ve committed to a specific change and they know exactly what they need to do each day to be successful in making progress toward their goal.


Behavior Change Myth #2: You can “make” clients change

Trying to convince clients to change is a waste of time and effort.

You can educate, encourage, caution, and plead with clients all you want. And then feel annoyed and exhausted because you’re working way harder than they are to make a change.

And if that’s not enough, here are 3 other reasons this approach doesn’t work:

  • Reason #1: It assumes your goals are the same as their goals. They’re not.
  • Reason #2: It implies your agenda matters more than theirs. It doesn’t.
  • Reason #3: You want your client to feel seen, heard, and valued – not coerced and manipulated.

What to do instead

Simply ask your client, “What’s hard for you about making this change?” and then listen to their reply without being attached to any specific outcome.

This conversation will often prompt clients to suggest their own changes so there’s no longer a reason for you to “make” them do anything. Instead they’ll decide what to do all on their own.

Ironically, when you show clients you value who they are and not just their results, it often leads to better results. What your clients need from you is not more reasons to change, but rather the time and space to reflect on what they want to do and when they want to do it.


Behavior Change Myth #3: Some clients aren’t ready to change

One of the most pervasive behavior change myths among dietitians is the idea that clients need to be “ready” before making a change.

Not true! Contrary to popular belief, your client’s readiness to change is not a black-and-white scenario in which they’re either ready to make a change or they’re not.

Instead, readiness to change is a continuum that’s influenced by many factors, including your client’s level of motivation and the difficulty of the task.

Your client may not be ready to make the change you’re suggesting right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ready to make any change at all.

What to do instead:

Make the change as easy as possible.

When a change is easier, then your client doesn’t need as much discipline or willpower to make it happen. That makes it easier for them to picture themselves doing it, commit to it, and make it happen.

As a dietitian, there are many ways you can help your client make a change easier to do. You can create a starter step, recommend a trial period, or focus on a single behavior that’s so bite-sized and simple your client can’t say no.

Ultimately, there are infinite possibilities for change. Rather than focusing on the fact your client doesn’t want to do the behavior you suggested, ask what they might be willing to do instead.


Wrapping it Up

There you have it: 3 behavior change myths every dietitian needs to know.

Behavior change is an evolving science and the strategies you use in your practice can evolve, too. For your clients to get the best results, you’ll want to explore a variety of behavior change strategies and not simply tell them what to do.

As you’ve seen, current evidence-based change strategies include building habits, exploring challenges, and making changes easier. As you add more strategies to your counseling toolkit, your confidence will continue to grow.

Which of these myths did you find most surprising?


Laura has been a dietitian, primarily a kidney dietitian, for more than 20 years. Before pursuing a career in nutrition, she taught junior high English. She is the founder of Transform RD, host of the Dietitian Book Club, and also a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist.

For more information about how Laura helps dietitians make behavior change easy for clients so they can achieve high rates of client success, visit www.transformrd.com.


Laura Koller, MS, MSEd, RD, LDN, CDCES

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