7 Key Health Behavior Terms to Know

By Michael J. Rovito

Part of Clinical Nutrition For Dummies Cheat Sheet

According to health behavior theory, sooner or later, the decisions you make now will determine your health and wellness status well into your future. A collection of many variables unique to each individual — his or her perceptions, values, personality, beliefs, habits, cultural influences, family history, and so on — affect disease prevention, health maintenance, and treatment choices.

Nutritionists apply the principles of health behavior theory to help alter their patients’ behaviors related to nutrition and healthy living. The following list introduces some of the key terms and variables that create the foundations of the field:

  • Intention: The will of the individual to eventually perform a behavior.

    According to health behavior theory, a person who intends to do something eventually does it. Therefore, getting a patient to state an intention is a key indicator of whether he or she can successfully make the change. A patient who states that the intention to eat healthily, for example, will, within a specific time period, perform the behavior.

  • Control beliefs: An individual’s perception that he or she can physically perform a behavior.

    If you recommend that a patient eat two servings of vegetables with every dinner, the individual’s control beliefs would include, for example, whether she believes that she can buy the vegetable, prepare it, and then eat it. Such perceptions weigh into the person’s decision to actually adopt the behavior.

  • Normative beliefs: The generally held beliefs in a society.

    Normative beliefs impact how the individual believes his peer group will respond to him when he adopts a given behavior. For example, your patient may want to eat vegetables with every meal, but if his spouse, family, or friends are not supportive, or even overtly oppositional, their opposition can produce conflicting feelings in your patient about whether to eat vegetables or not.

  • Behavioral beliefs: How the individual feels about adopting the behavior.

    Usually called attitude, behavioral beliefs are the core beliefs an individual has about the behavior. For example, does the individual want to actually want to eat vegetables or does she refuse to be told what to do about their health by another person?

  • Perceived severity: The individual’s perception about how serious is the health threat or how negative is the outcome of a given behavior or disease. Behaviors that are perceived to be highly threatening or diseases that are perceived to produce highly negative outcomes are more likely to spur change than those that are perceived to be less threatening or negative.

    Perceived severity has a more powerful influence on behavior than actual severity. If you perceive that smoking cigarettes isn’t dangerous, for example, you’ll smoke, despite how dangerous smoking really is.

  • Perceived vulnerability: How susceptible to the disease a person believes she is.

    If a patient believes that she is highly vulnerable to developing cancer because of her dietary choices, she will be more inclined to change her diet to reduce her risk. If she believes that diet has little impact — that is, her perceived vulnerability to getting cancer due to dietary choices is low — she will be less inclined to adopt healthier dietary choices.

  • Cues to action: A system of reminders an individual uses to spur himself to perform a behavior. Cues to action can take the form of peer support, sticky-notes posted on the refrigerator, and so on.