Integrating SMART Goals into Nutrition Education

by Ellen Garcia

Last week, Leah’s Pantry hosted its second professional development webinar for nutrition educators, “Dream Big, Start Small: Integrating SMART Goals into Nutrition Education.” Leah’s Pantry Food Smarts training has emphasized SMART Goals for years as a tool for helping workshop participants move towards long-lasting behavior change. We know that without tools such as these to make long-lasting changes, it’s unlikely our participants will replace unhealthy habits with healthy new ones — especially once a workshop has ended. Helping participants set “SMART Goals” addresses this need, but it’s deceptively simple. It can be explained easily: instead of focusing on long-term outcomes like “I want to get in shape,” set short-term goals that are Specific, Measureable, Action-Based, Realistic, and Time-Based. Sounds easy enough, right?

As straightforward as this sounds as a concept, as a skill it is surprisingly difficult to teach. As it turns out, people have a lot of baggage around changing habits even when they really, really want to! Our job as facilitators, then, is not just to explain SMART Goals but to coach them through the process and to show that effective goal-setting is something that takes practice… maybe even a lifetime of practice. But it has the power to not only change people’s health, but how they think about themselves.

How do we do this? We first have to understand what makes changing habits so difficult for all of us. The main challenge everyone faces when changing habits is that we are physiologically programmed to repeat behaviors that have given us pleasure in the past, even if those behaviors no longer produce the desired results. Blame hormones. For example my brain, in anticipation of pleasure from something like eating 3 slices of jalapeno pizza, releases the hormone dopamine. Dopamine makes me feel good and keeps me moving towards that spicy pizza —which was more pleasurable than painful the first time I tried it at aged 17. This natural “high” I get from anticipating and then eating the pizza will likely last even as I eat way too much of it, even as it occurs to me consciously that I no longer have the stomach or the metabolism of a 17-year-old. I want more dopamine! If I am feeling really down to begin with, not eating the pizza and experiencing the resulting drop in dopamine might actually make me more depressed. And I don’t want that. So I eat the pizza even though I will regret it as soon as the dopamine wears off. And I will do it again the next time I encounter jalapeno pizza; thus we see a bad habit in action. We can also see how addictions form, or at least illogical stubbornness.

There is another more conscious pattern at play in preventing us from forming new, good habits, and that’s our inability to differentiate between the long-term outcomes we want (our dreams) and the immediate steps we can take to get there (short-term goals). Take, for example, the overwhelming majority of New Year’s Resolutions. They are usually phrased in very broad, vague terms like “I will get in shape” or “I will lose weight.” These are valid aspirations to be sure, but they don’t tell us what to do or when we will be finished. We also can’t 100% control these things, no matter what we’ve been trained to think. There are all kinds of metabolic issues that can make changing one’s physiology difficult; trying to get fit or lose weight may ultimately be more like negotiating a peace accord with a skeptical partner than imposing rules on a powerless child. But we don’t like to think about that. We like to think we are stronger than that!

As workshop facilitators working with lower-income populations, Leah’s Pantry staff also sees special challenges for our participants. Living without resources or feeling deprived can be incredibly distracting for people. Princeton psychologist Eldar Shaffir and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan have identified a “psychology of scarcity,” supported by their extensive research, in which people who perceive themselves to lack resources experience a kind of short-term distraction which can prevent them from longer-term problem-solving. Far from a question of intellectual capacity, this is a persistent exhausting the “mental bandwidth” to deal with non-emergencies. Could this also make people more vulnerable to the very short-term dopamine anticipation-reward cycle, even more easily distracted by harmful short-term pleasures (like overeating)? We are not psychologists at Leah’s Pantry, and we can’t get to the root of any one participant’s unhealthy food attachments in a 90-minute workshop, but it certainly seems so at times. And it makes sense: a person who feels deprived has a tougher time postponing pleasure in favor of long-term gains.

Program Coordinator Alex Neidenberg showcasing her "Dream Board," that includes a farm fresh stand for the Tenderloin neighborhood to enjoy!

Program Coordinator Alex Neidenberg showcasing her "Dream Board," that includes a farm fresh stand for the Tenderloin neighborhood to enjoy!

SMART Goals are a tool designed to address these challenges. Once a person has identified his “dream” for the future— no matter how ambitious, vague, philosophical, or our of his control— he can set a short-term SMART Goal to achieve immediately. For someone whose dream is to get in shape, for example, a useful SMART Goal might be “I will take the stairs instead of the elevator in my apartment building all week.” It might even be smaller than that: “I will take the stairs at least once a day this week.” This goal is modest enough to be easily attained and provide gratification quickly. A similar goal can be set the following week, and so on and so forth, until the dream of being “in shape” is attained.

Another benefit of practicing SMART Goals, however, is that attaining the dream can ultimately take on secondary importance. By setting weekly goals and achieving them, a person can come to expect her own success. And what could be more empowering and healthy than that?

Just like setting goals takes practice, however, so does teaching it. The Leah’s Pantry approach to using SMART Goals has evolved over nearly a decade and continues to evolve. For example, Program Coordinator Alex Neidenberg and I are piloting a new activity at a partner site in the Tenderloin; in my best kindergarten teacher voice, I will ask our adult participants to draw and collage how they dream their lives looking a year from now. They will use crayons, construction paper, magazines, and safety scissors. Hopefully this will set Alex up for future conversations about SMART Goals. Will everyone laugh at us? Possibly, but we’re not worried. If the activity flops we will adjust and try again elsewhere— because the only way to fail is to stop practicing. 

What are your SMART Goals? How do you dream your life to be one year from now? What would your "Dream Board" look like?