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Rationalizations undo good intentions

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2007

As a personal trainer who coaches clients in their fight to become fit or slim, Tim Schilcher has become something of a student of human nature.

And he knows the enemy well.

It's rationalization, that internal mole who works to undo the good intentions of those who attempt to reduce their calories and fat intake, to exercise more and drink less.

Many folks who forgo a fat-fortified whipped cream mocha latte reward themselves with a big chocolate muffin.

"You hear it at McDonalds all the time," says Schilcher, who owns MyoFitness Personal Training in Millvale. " 'I'll take the Whopper with cheese and a Diet Coke.' "

This is hardly news to Leslie Bonci, director of the sports nutrition program at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine on the South Side.

"We want our steak and we want to eat it, too," she says. " We don't want to give anything up."

One of rationalization's key weapons could be the barrage of health warnings from government and the media.

"People just don't know what to do anymore," Bonci says "A lot of people are going to throw up their hands and say, 'I'm going to die anyway, so I'm going to have what I'm going to have.' "

Monique Turner has made it her business to study how people rationalize.

Turner is director of the Center for Risk Communication Research at the University of Maryland, which studies how the public responds to health warnings, among other things.

"There is a plethora of research rationalizing bad behavior," Turner says. "Human beings, if they want something bad enough, they can make it fit into their conscience. People do a very good job of saying, 'According to medical research, everything's going to kill me eventually, so the heck with it.' It's not really very cognitive thinking, because, obviously, everything is not going to kill you."

But it must often seem that way to consumers overloaded with health warnings, especially with the advent of the Internet.

Last week, for example, a group of obstetricians and nutritionists said pregnant and nursing women should eat at least 12 ounces of fish or seafood a week, contradicting government warnings.

A report released last month said that wine was just as bad as other forms of alcohol in contributing to the risk of breast cancer in women. Those who had been told a glass or two of wine was good for the heart were left scratching their heads.

Kathleen Nachazel, athletic trainer at the UMPC Center for Sports Medicine, says she and her colleagues often get what might be called the paradigm rationale from clients they're trying to motivate. Because the paradigm changes every five years, they say, the advice they're given now about exercise or diet will be obsolete.

"Some people's opinion is 'Why should I do that now, because you're going to tell me something different in five years?' " she says. "We have to sit there and explain to them. It's because of new research that comes out. Everything changes. Cars change for increased safety."

Becky Campbell of Greensburg says she heeds most warnings.

"I kind of pay attention to those things. For the most part I'm probably a good 'Do Bee,' she says. "I think that most of them are for our own good."

David Truby, 69, of Shelocta, does the opposite.

"I eat what I like," says the author and former journalism professor. "I figure everybody's going to go someday, so I might as well be happy while I'm here."

He doesn't' smoke. He grows his own tomatoes and likes green vegetables and doesn't eat fast food.

But he puts little stock in health warnings about cholesterol. And it's not a tofu dish that's named after him at the Grape Vine Restaurant in Indiana. It's the Truby Cut, a 22- to 24-ounce prime rib.

"I really truly believe that a lot of this stuff is genetics," Truby says. His grandfather lived to be 98. His mother is 96. "The other side of the family died young, so I guess it's a crapshoot."

The way to fight temptation, as Oscar Wilde once said, is to yield to it. On select occasions, that is.

Schilcher, the personal trainer, gives his clients one "cheat day" per week, where they can eat or drink what they want.

"'If you go without that piece of pizza, it tastes so much better on Friday night," he says.

Mireille Guiliano, author of "French Women Don't Get Fat" ($17.95 Random House), agrees that indulgence should be selective.

"I'm the first to say 'I love my chocolate, I love my pastries, I love my croissants.' But I pick my moments, like Sunday mornings with my family."

So why don't French women get fat?

"Because we eat very small portions. We have all these rituals about eating. Why do you think we have these small plates• Why do you think we have all these courses?"

She empathizes with people who are bombarded with health warnings and restrictive diets.

"One day, this is good for you; the next day, it's not good for you. It's confusing the consumer, and it's creating all this hoopla and it's all fluff," she says. "I don't like fast food, but it's there to stay. We're not going to eliminate it. All I'm saying to people is 'Don't eat it seven days a week.' "


Speak softly

Warning: Some health warnings could be hazardous to your health.

Monique Turner, director of the Center For Risk Communication Research at the University of Maryland, says that harsh warnings can turn some people off.

"Some studies have even indicated that anti-binge drinking or smoking messages that used strong language led to an increase in drinking and smoking," she says.

When people are given no choice, they tend to rebel, she says.

"When warnings are worded very intensely -- 'You cannot do it' and 'Don't do it' -- instead of being more implicit, people are much more likely to reject the warning altogether and engage in the risky behavior. Any persuasive message that doesn't give receivers the option of thinking it through is unlikely to work."

Consumers sometimes perceive separate messages regarding their health to be contradictory, even if they aren't, she says.

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