Are your Compensations Ruining your Health Goals?

For those of us pursuing a healthier lifestyle, there are moments when we falter. It happens all the time. In those moments, when our desires for a naughty treat become too much, we can feel the only course of action is to make up for it later. But is that really best for us?

For example, say you are trying to quit smoking. You’ve been doing really well, and then one day you have a very stressful morning. Things just aren’t going as planned, and the one thing you are really hankering for is a cigarette.

You think to yourself “Well I know I shouldn’t, but I really want one right now. If I have a cigarette, I will make up for it later by eating really healthy and going for a run.” This is a Compensatory Health Belief.

The Compensatory Heath Belief model (Rabiau, Knäuper, & Miquelon, 2006) helps us to understand how we form these thoughts, and how we make certain health decisions. The model outlines the different decisional-pathways we can take, and what factors contribute to taking one path over the other.

In simple terms, when we are faced with something we like, but isn’t all that healthy for us, we can decide to either pretend it’s not as bad as we think it is, resist the thing we are wanting, or create a compensatory health belief. By creating this belief, we can maximise our pleasure, while minimising the harm to us.

This in turn leads to an intention to do the healthy, compensatory behaviour. Hopefully this then leads to actually doing the compensatory behaviour. See the model below to understand how this all links up…

The Compensatory Health Belief Model

So what’s the problem? Often times the behaviour we think is going to do us good, to compensate for our unhealthy decision, doesn’t actually help. The damage done by smoking a cigarette is not going to be undone by eating an extra portion of fruit, or having a runabout.

What’s even worse is that our intentions don’t necessarily lead to behaviours! So even if you want to go and do a healthy behaviour, that doesn’t mean you are going to follow through and actually do it. This intention-behaviour gap has been well recorded within Health Psychology, and is something many academics are still trying to figure out today.

My advice? If you feel like this applies to you in anyway, I would train yourself to challenge these thoughts as they come about. When you feel the temptation creeping in, remind yourself of why you are avoiding these things in the first place. Otherwise you end up simply justifying unhealthy behaviours, and prolonging the day you actually reach your health goal…

What do you think? Have you ever found yourself using Compensatory Health Beliefs? What happened, and did it help or hinder your health journey? Let me know in the comments below!

For the Psychologists…
Rabiau, M., Knäuper, B., & Miquelon, P. (2006). The eternal quest for optimal balance between maximizing pleasure and minimizing harm: The compensatory health beliefs model. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 139-153.

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