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How Facebook can make you healthier

Social media helped me — and more than 50 of my friends — cut back on sugar. Here’s how.

Last Thanksgiving, after a second belt-busting slice of whipped cream-topped pumpkin pie,

Anne Bokma

Anne Bokma

I decided to put the brakes on my sugar consumption.

I couldn’t have picked a better time. The “sweet season” was starting and soon heaps of miniature Halloween chocolate bars would appear in the house, followed by platters of cookies at Christmas.

Plus, the Heart and Stroke Foundation had recently warned Canadians that most of us eat too much added sugar, increasing our risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and more.

So I invited my online friends to join me in a 14-Day No-Sugar Facebook Challenge. Within days 53 people had signed on, most of them midlife women like me. 

Using social media to reach health goals isn’t new. A quick survey of a typical newsfeed reveals people documenting everything from getting their 10,000 steps to sharing vegetarian recipes to nixing late-night noshing. The support, in the form of encouraging comments, shared resources or friends signing on for the same changes, can give you a much-needed boost on low-willpower days.

Sharing supports success

There’s plenty of evidence to show that social media can help you reach your health goals. A study conducted by the online community Weilos found those who posted progress photos documenting their weight loss dropped 1.2 pounds per week. Similarly a 2013 study published in Translational Behavioral Medicine found those who published their weight loss progression on Twitter were more successful than those who didn’t.

There’s no doubt about it — publicly stating your goals puts you that much closer to reaching them. In fact, people who write down their goals, share them with a friend and send weekly updates are 33 per cent more successful in achieving results than those who don’t bother, according to a study conducted at Dominican University of California.

I was encouraged by the success I’d had with a recent online 21-Day No Booze Challenge. Wine had become a daily habit; I wanted to cut back, but didn’t want to go it alone. So I invited my Facebook friends to join a private online group where we could share articles, updates and encouragement as we cut out alcohol. More than 40 people signed up, and in the end, the challenge helped me create a new, healthier relationship with alcohol.

Updates and encouragement

Hoping for the same success with sugar, I created a similar online support group. Setting up a private Facebook group is easy — even for a technophobe like me (get step-by-step instructions here:). And the response was satisfyingly immediate. Within five minutes a couple of Facebook friends signed up. Two days into the No-Sugar Challenge and dozens of people were posting helpful articles, tips and resources, as well as comments about how they were faring in their fight against sugar.

Our newfound enthusiasm for the challenge kept us collectively pumped the first couple of days, and then the lack of sugar hit many of us and we were reeling with feelings of deprivation. By all accounts, this is pretty normal when you cut sugar cold turkey. But by the end of the first week, people started seeing results, such as better sleep and more mental clarity. One woman, who had been suffering from serious hot flashes for years, was flabbergasted when they simply disappeared.

I made a lot of small, permanent changes to my diet. I cut out the half teaspoon of sugar in my two morning coffees, for example. Ditto for my afternoon tea, which used to accompany cookies or a piece of banana bread. Now I have a handful of nuts or gluten free crackers and hummus instead.

All these small changes had a significant impact. Yes, I lost a couple of pounds, but the best result was my boost in energy. Another bonus: my 14-day experiment made me more conscious of my eating habits in general and what I put on my plate. In the end, I felt healthier and happier. That was the sweetest thing of all. 

 

Create your own challenge

Want to try a social media challenge of your own? Here are 7 tips to consider:

  1. Provide ample warning: Give your friends a start date so they’ll have time to get psyched. In our case, that meant we used the time to purge our fridges and cupboards of any sugar-laden products.

  2. Spread the word:  The more folks who sign on to your Facebook challenge, the more activity and discussion it will generate. Some of my Facebook friends let their friends know about the challenge and that helped widen the circle of support.

  3. Do some research: It was easy to find articles, documentaries and websites devoted to reducing sugar. Posting these links led to further discussion and commentary. Depending on your challenge, you may also want to link to fitness resources or healthy recipes.

  4. Visuals are powerful: Take photos of new, healthy sugar-free foods you are trying, recipes you want to try, cool workout gear or great walking trails — depending on your challenge.

  5. Make it personal: Share your successes and your challenges. If you’ve slipped up, say so. Every will relate.

  6. Keep the discussion going: Encourage people to share their opinions about specific issues. For example, when I asked folks what they thought about using the natural sweetener stevia, it generated a lot of discussion.

  7. Stay active in the group: You can keep the group going indefinitely. After two weeks many in our no-sugar challenge stopped posting on a regular basis but months later, new and helpful information still gets posted on our group, keeping us ever mindful that giving up any unhealthy habit takes ongoing effort.

Twitter hashtags can also keep you going with your challenge. This link provides dozens of hashtags to help keep you healthy over the long haul.

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