This article will teach you how to light-heartedly and gently nudge (but not piss-off) those loved ones you hope will adopt a healthier attitude towards life.  Although this can be a bit of a minefield and should be tackled with care, however, it can be done.

How to positively manipulate your loved ones into adopting a healthier lifestyle

It’s hard to see loved ones suffer as a result of their wrong lifestyle choices, especially these relating to their eating habits. Traditional whole foods have been out of fashion for such a long time that many of our parents and sometimes even our grandparents are totally unaware of the negative health effects triggered by the foods they grew up loving. As they grow older, however, these habits start to take their toll, and we must watch as their health declines. A medical emergency that brings them face-to-face with reality is often what it takes for them to make changes. But for some, even that isn’t enough.

Unfortunately, altering the bad habits of other people is even more difficult than changing our own. Dogged determination, pride, and ignorance can stop people from even listening to advice that could help save their lives, and for some reason it appears that age tends to compound these particular traits. Flogging a message that people don’t want to hear can make them to dig in and fight even harder to preserve their way of life, damaging and potentially destroying your relationship with them. If this is something that sounds familiar to you, it’s first crucial to accept the fact that there may be nothing you can do for them. No matter how profound your desire to help, a person has to want to change and cannot be forced. Like the proverb: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Yet, change can happen. This is an experience I encounter very often in my professional life with my clients but today I would like to share a personal experience regarding someone closely related to me.  Let’s call him Joe.  Despite my close relationship with Joe and his enthusiasm about my chosen career path, I didn’t expect him to ever alter the way he ate. Joe suffered from depression for the last 25 years, and his outlook got even worse after his wife passed away from lung cancer in 2005. Like most people, he had developed the habit of eating processed and fast foods starting in the early 1990s, and as he sunk deeper into his depression, the effort he put into feeding and looking after himself faded.

“In general, I did not want to continue living and didn’t think I would. With all my health problems, and especially after Lisa died—that was a really hard thing for me to deal with—and I thought it would be better if I was gone too,” he told me.

After several serious medical emergencies that nearly killed him, I had nearly given up hope for a change, even though he was only in his fifties. But I continued to care for him and share my passion for healthy living at every opportunity.

“You were so understanding, you never put me under any pressure or tried to influence me to change, but you always gave me hope that things would get better, things would be better,” he recalled.

From where I was standing, he had gone through enough and didn’t need anyone else telling him how to live out his life. If he didn’t want to continue living, I didn’t feel he was receptive to hear about blood sugar level or whole food. Perhaps it was a bit selfish of me, but I just wanted to have as many happy and positive times with him as possible. Que sera sera.  The last thing I wanted was to tension our relationship unnecessarily. I know Joe, and he is not one to do anything just because someone else, even me, told him he should. Still my excitement about food and health was genuine, and I knew he had always been a fan of a good meal, so I continued to share that point.

My cooking was the first thing that caught his attention. I made a point whenever visiting him, to stop by the artisanal shops at the market in Place d’armes and get something delicious. On one visit I brought a small bag red chili peppers, some cold pressed extra olive oil, and a crusty whole meal farmer’s bread. Chilli peppers are small red peppers that are a common tapas dish in Spain and a seasonal delicacy all over the Mediterranean. They are extremely simple to prepare. All you have to do is heat some olive oil in a cast-iron pan and cook the peppers over medium heat until they blister and just start to turn brown. When they’re done, sprinkle them with some coarse sea salt and feed yourself with your fingers. Chillies have a deep pepper flavour, but are not usually spicy—I say ‘usually’. One out of every ten or so peppers is a scorcher, so eating a bowl is a bit like playing Russian roulette with your tongue. 

Joe has always been a fan of spicy foods, and I knew that chilli peppers would be his cap of tea. At his apartment I cooked them with a little more olive oil than usual, because it becomes infused with the pepper’s own oil and tastes like a treat. We used the bread to sop up the extra pepper oil and cool our mouths when it got burned on the spicy ones. Joe loved every bit of it and gently started paying more attention whenever I spoke about food.

His next great epiphany was parsnips {uber-simple parsnip soup recipe at the end of this article}. All his life he had hated parsnip, and consequently they were never served in his house. The truth is that I wasn’t a big fan either.  The first couple of times I tried them, even at nice restaurants, they tasted a little off to me. Something about their flavour reminded me of earth, and I could never get past that to enjoy their sweet nutty flavour. But I continued to try them on occasion, perhaps hoping one day something would ‘click’. That day came one winter afternoon at the house of a friend who was having a dinner party. We were having lamb casserole, which I was very excited about, but the main course was a long way off, so she put out a huge pile of roasted parsnips sprinkled with goat cheese and fresh mint as an amuse bouche.

I was starving, so I started reluctantly picking at the giant pile, since I didn’t want to scoop myself a portion of food I didn’t expect to enjoy. I popped the first bite in my mouth and, indeed, it still tasted like parsnip. But I was hungry, so I tried another, this time with a generous portion of mint and cheese on it. After a few chews, it hit me. “Whoa, this isn’t half bad,” I said to myself. Something about the fresh-tasting mint and the creamy cheese balanced the earthy flavour of the parsnips and transformed them into something I could like. I went on to put a hefty dent in the parsnip mountain, leaving bright green (mint) stains all over my fingers. Parsnips had finally made it onto my favourite vegetables list, and I started making my own version of the recipe at home.

Proud of my recent conversion, I told my Joe about my parsnip discovery during our next phone call. He replied sceptically, saying that he hated parsnip and always will. But I knew I was onto something and decided to include the recipe in our next meal together, just so he could try it for himself. I made plenty of other dishes as well, just in case he really didn’t like the parsnip, but I followed my friend’s lead and set them out earlier than the rest of the food as an amuse bouche, knowing that when you’re hungry you’re not as selective. It worked.

“When you made those parsnips I thought ‘Wow, this is so unbelievable! So different from what I remember,’ ” he recalled.

I was stoked, and Joe became a believer. At almost sixty years old, he developed a new appreciation for vegetables and real food (turns out the parsnips he grew up eating were always from a can), even the ones he thought he passionately disliked.

“It made eating and preparing healthy food much more fascinating,” he explained. “It became exciting to me to see what the possibilities are.”

The beets weren’t enough to change Joe habits, but he was starting to make the connection between good food and good health. More important, he was now convinced that vegetables and other healthy foods could taste great and that eating them would not be such a disaster. He also seemed to be paying more attention to me and the things I would say and share on my website and Facebook about wellness.

Though he still didn’t care much about his own life or health, he was growing tired of feeling unwell and drained all the time, and it was becoming evident to him that his health (and possibly his diet) was the root. After living for decades on processed foods, Joe had developed insulin resistance and his blood sugar spikes were having a terrible impact on his mood and energy levels. He also had seriously high blood pressure, and in 2007 a mild stroke left him with a speech impediment that troubled and deeply embarrassed him. Worse than that, the stroke made it nearly impossible for him to play his sax, the only passion he had left in his life. Though he was able to recover his speech and dexterity within a few months, this experience frightened him enough to start taking medication for his condition and paying a little more attention to his diet. He may not have cared then if he lived or not, but he knew he didn’t want to live without his music.

Because he’s a good friend, Joe had always done his best to keep up with my profession even before my career change. He’s followed almost all my rants against processed food and praise for raw vegetables, free range eggs, and wild fish, and nothing had ever influenced him to change the way he eats. Then one day in late March 2014, I had a surprising call from him.

A few weeks earlier I had wrote an article about sugar, explaining how it affects your health and what you need to understand to make smart food decisions. My basic argument was that sugar itself is not bad for you. As long as you don’t put it inside your mouth.  There are plenty of reasons why sugar is a problem for most Western societies. I’ll give you three selected at random.  The first is that we eat way too much of it, which leads to obesity. The 2nd reason is that it is addictive.   Third, it robs the bones of minerals. All three of these points lead to the simple conclusion that too many processed foods and too few vegetables are the real causes of ill-health.

On that random day in March, Joe called to tell me that he read this article, and something about it struck a chord. I remember his words so vividly I can still hear him saying them in my head.

“I read the blog you wrote about sugar, and it was really great,” he began.

“Thanks, Joe,” I replied.

“Yeah, I was reading it, and you made me realise that sugar is already inside the processed foods,” he explained.

“That’s right,” I answered, almost chuckling at his excitement about this simple revelation.

“Well, since the sugar is already in there, I stopped eating them,” he continued.

“What?” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.

“I stopped eating the processed foods a couple weeks ago. But I needed something else to eat, and I remembered you always saying I’m supposed to eat vegetables, so I went to the store and bought all of them,” he went on.

“What? What did you buy?” I asked, starting to realise the meaning of his words.

 “I bought all the vegetables. They weren’t very well labelled, so I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting. But I think I got some kale and some salad. And I got some peppers, onions, mushrooms, and all sorts of other weird stuff. I took it home and cut it all up—it took an hour there was so much of it—and I made three huge batches of stir-fry. It was beautiful, and so colourful, so I call it my Rainbow Stir-Fry. And it was delicious! I take it to work and eat it every day for breakfast and lunch. I also sauté some fish or turkey meat and eat that. After eating that all day, I’m not usually hungry at supper time.”

Laughing again, this time in disbelief, I asked, “So you’ve been eating nothing but vegetables, fish, and turkey for two weeks?”

“Yeah, and I love it! And I’ve had to bore two new holes in my belt. I think I’ll need to get new trousers soon.”

I was gobsmacked. Seemingly overnight, Joe, who had nearly given up on his own life, had completely transformed his eating habits and loved everything about it. At the time I didn’t let myself dwell too long on what this could mean. It was too good to be true. But deep down I knew what was at stake if he was serious: it meant he might make it after all.

As I hoped, Joe’s change was real and permanent. In just two months he was down 12 kilograms. I know this because he was so impressed by his own transformation that he went and bought himself a weighing scale to track his progress. It wasn’t out of vanity—the man doesn’t have a full-length mirror in his entire house—but out of inquisitiveness. He wanted to have something tangible to look at and know that what he was doing was making a difference.

“In the beginning I didn’t know I was losing weight because I didn’t weigh myself, but I kept having to bore new holes in my belt, and one day there were so many folds in my trousers. I wore a size 46, so I tried a 44, and those were too big! I couldn’t believe I was a size 42—I was so proud of myself.”

Shortly after that Joe developed a strong urge to start exercising.

“It only took about a fortnight since I started eating healthy every day to feel a complete difference in my body, in the way I felt. It all starts adding up, it has an effect on your whole life,” he explained. “The exercise came along when I started losing weight. It was just falling off me. And I felt like I wanted to stretch and move again. I didn’t want to feel like wimp any longer,” he said.

For over five years he had been using a cane for support when walking. His knee had been severely weakened by arthritis. But when he started losing weight, it was easier for him to move around, and wasn’t as necessary as before. He started taking the stairs instead of the lift at work, spent more time walking with his dogs, and bought some used exercise equipment from eBay for his home—some dumbbells and an ab roller wheel. Over a year later he is down 25 kilos and the cane is collecting dust.

“Now I do a hundred ab crunches every day,” he told me. “I remember when I reached seventy the first time I couldn’t believe it. It’s really good because when I had a rubbish day, I know I did my hundred crunches. I have at least that one thing I’m proud of. It’s a lifestyle that I find very delightful,” he said.

As his eating habits and body transformed, so did his attitude to life.

“I thought, if I’m going to live and see my kids grow up, I don’t want to be from a wheelchair. I rather be fit enough to lift my grandchildren” he explained.

When I asked him what he thought led to this amazing transformation, he had a hard time putting his finger on it.

 “For me it took having the wake-up call of the health problem. Then something made me feel I really didn’t want to die. I don’t know exactly when it was, but it was definitely to do with you. I always felt better after speaking to you. It wasn’t for me or because of me, but your belief that things could be improve.”

Joe’s lifestyle has progressed since he first started on his voyage. In time he became tired of eating his Rainbow Stir-Fry every day.

“At first, it was a bit like cooking dinner and making a piece of edible art. A few months later it started being a bit of a hassle and started getting old. But that didn’t mean I went back to my bad habits.”

He now shops and cooks more often, making smaller batches of vegetables and fish that he can put together quickly in the morning before going to work.

“I mix it up with different sauces, Chinese or Indian, and I rotate and shop at different greengrocers for my vegetables. I found a little place by my house now that has better vegetables than my local supermarket. I never get tired of this stuff.”

Though he is aware that his dishes and methods will continue to change as he gets better at cooking and learns to use new vegetables, he isn’t worried about sliding back into his former habits.

“I’ve been at it long enough now that I know in my heart that I’ll never go back to my old way of eating, because I no longer find any joy in it. I still go get Chinese or Mexican food from time to time, but I don’t want to do it every day. I’m happy and satisfied with how I’m doing it now.”

My blog about sugar was certainly a catalyst in Joe’s transformation, but it would have been impossible for it to have had the impact it did without the years of education and encouragement from me that came before it. Just as important is that he was able to make the adjustments at his own pace, without being pushed by anyone to do it a certain way.

“I was able to read on the Internet without interacting with you all the time, and see the reasons for doing all these things. Then I had the opportunity and knowledge, which I got thanks to you, and I rummaged my way through it until I got my own style. Once I made up my mind, I’m pretty difficult to be held back. I went the whole way,” he said.

When I asked him if he had any advice for people in a similar situation that I was in, wanting to help a loved one make healthier choices, he advised

“As long as they can be patient and present things in a way that’s easy to digest. Let your family see how you eat, read a little, and get some inspiration. Everyone need to find their own path, whatever works for them”.

As for Joe, he’s just happy it struck him when it did.  And so am I.

Uber-simple parsnip soup recipe (by Luci Lock)