U-M researcher Michelle Segar lays out “The Joy Choice” in her recent book on sensible eating and exercise plans


A portrait of author Michelle Segar is next to her book cover The Joy Choice.

Exercise and eating both come down to our daily choices, and it does not have to be as hard as it seems, says author Michelle Segar, a lifestyle coach and researcher at the University of Michigan. 

In her recent book, The Joy Choice, Segar details a new way to make these decisions, including diagrams that show how to apply her research-based method. She writes: 

Our choice is our choice. It no longer represents overcoming perceived deficiencies, following someone else’s rules, or being selfish. We make room for the unanticipated while still meeting our own self-care needs, simultaneously renewing our energetic resources for the people, goals, and projects we care most about. 

Segar’s Joy Choice strategy and decision tool were designed to assist you at the point when you and your eating or exercise plans run up against real-life interruptions. The genius of this tactic comes from working with, rather than against, the unanticipated challenges so you can keep making strides toward your target despite life’s unwelcome twists.  

One way that Segar helps address these “choice points”—the moments when you are faced with continuing to pursue your exact plan or changing course—is by identifying the ways that both internal and external issues could derail making your desired healthy choice. Segar calls these forces “decision disrupters.” An example of one of the four disruptors that she features is “accommodation,” about which Segar writes, “[T]here’s real science about the damage that can occur when our automatic and consistent go-to is giving other people’s needs priority over our own. As with most things in life, seeking balance and finding compromise is key.” While our decision disrupters may not be readily apparent, we can address them once we learn about them—and prevent them from upending our goals moving forward.

Segar calls “choice points” the “true place of power” because it is at these times when you can make a choice that aligns with your greater goals. Segar says:

When the exercise and eating goals we have selected (as opposed to those that have been imposed on us by society or others) align with our core values, needs, and priorities, they become integrated into and a natural affirming part of who we are. This in turn increases the value proposition for making choices that favor healthy eating and regular exercise. Because we no longer feel that we should make those choices, our internal conflicts with them are gone or greatly reduced, and so now we want to make them and make them more effortlessly. 

Making decisions that support your healthy behavior goals becomes enjoyably straightforward with Segar’s Joy Choice strategy. 

AADL hosted Segar for a reading on June 24, a video of which is included at the end of this post. This fall, I interviewed her about The Joy Choice

Q: How did you come to live and work in Ann Arbor? 
A: I am from Flint, went here for undergrad, and moved back for my graduate degrees. I love A2 and never wanted to leave after coming back for graduate school!

Q: In The Joy Choice you mention your own “choice point” when you could stay on your current path or switch to researching conflicts between life and people’s goals around eating and exercising. Tell us how you decided to pursue this research and where it has led you.
A: The general shift was to move away from mostly focusing on exercise, motivation, and sustainable change and expanding my learning to decision-making and eating, too. In addition, I was very excited to learn more about executive functioning because this was new to me. So expanding into new areas has been very enlightening and exciting. 

Q: How did you then decide to write about your Joy Choice strategy? How did you come up with the name? 
A: Well, once I understand how crucial it is to support our executive functions when we encounter a challenge to our eating or exercise plans, it felt pretty important to share what I had learned in really engaging and user-friendly ways. It’s been great fun to use with my clients, too.

I named it the “Joy” Choice for two primary reasons:

1. When we pick the Joy Choice, we are succeeding with lasting change—we are maintaining momentum and not letting all-or-nothing thinking derail our greater goals. It’s not about perfection, it’s about embracing the grace that the "perfect imperfect option" (i.e., the Joy Choice) permits.

2. Theories about joy contend that it is a feeling, a match between the current moment and our core sense of self. So every time we choose the perfect imperfect option, we are not just making an in-the-moment decision that favors our greater eating and exercise goals, we are fueling ourselves for the people and projects that matter most to us, which in essence is realizing our core sense of self and values. That reflects a Joy Choice, too.  

Plus, it also gives us grace! 

Q: The Joy Choice is your second book. How was writing it different from your first book? 
A: Writing this second book was very different. No Sweat reflected the work I had been doing through my academic research and health coaching from the prior 20 years. The Joy Choice reflects my study of the greater emerging literature and my newer decision-making tools. Something that is similar in both books is that I combine client stories and engaging graphics to explain the science and method in easy and fun ways.

Q: How did you go about translating your research into a practical book on applying your framework to personal goals around dietary change and workouts? 
A: This has always been how I’ve worked with research! Because what I ultimately care about is helping people learn new beliefs and strategies based on science, I have to think about how I can name and frame it all to make it not only easy to understand but also interesting and fun to learn.

Q: You tell many stories of working with clients to help them achieve their goals in your book. What do you like about working with clients? How did you decide which stories to include in your book? 
A: I love working with clients. It’s as important if not more so than academic research. When we just do research, we are constrained by the needs of doing science. So we can’t really learn things outside of these limited parameters. Yet, real life is very different from the limitations inherent in our research! So through working with people, I dive deep into the core barriers and motivators people have in the wilderness of their daily lives. I choose stories that I thought would best exemplify the points I was trying to make.

Q: The “decision disrupters” feel relatable. Could you tell us more about how you identified them when they can be so ingrained and invisible?
A: I identified these overarching categories from working with people and living life, as well as listening to friends and family talk. The reason they are so invisible is that they often reflect our past experiences and past socialization, and these things tend to be less at the forefront of our conscious awareness.

I categorized disruptors into four main Decision Disruptors. They form the acronym TRAP:

Temptation: Temptation reflects the visceral pull we feel to eat that glistening chocolate cake at the party when it’s not on our eating plan or to sink into the couch with our remote instead of taking the walk we had planned. (Note: Temptation is not about “addiction”—which is an extreme situation that needs a different type of solution.) 

When we consider temptation, we need to know that the latest thinking is that it’s really coming from our memories of past experiences with the cake and couch. But once we learn how temptation and desire really work, it can empower us to take control by thinking more strategically at these tempting moments that challenge our self-care, eating, or exercise plans. 

Rebellion: We’ve been socialized in society to change our eating and exercise most often to “lose weight.” But this motivator converts our eating and exercise plans into one giant chore. Research shows that when we feel like we “should” do something, that we’re being controlled by the rule we decided we should follow, what we humans tend to do is rebel against it. Understanding how to escape rebellion is crucial to preventing it from robbing us of our own healthy choices.

Accommodation: This decision disruptor relates to the beliefs and values we hold about our fundamental role in taking care of other people’s needs and about doing our work, too. While it’s important to help others and meet their needs, if we always put our own self-care choices last, we sacrifice ourselves to an extent that compromises our own health and well-being. But becoming more aware of this dynamic gives us more control when it’s trying to overpower us.

Perfection: When we think we have to hit a bullseye, it makes every choice high stakes. This doesn’t just lead to all-or-nothing thinking, it amplifies Temptation, Rebellion, and Accommodation!

The good news is that the trade-off thinking and flexible POP! Decision Tool taught in The Joy Choice not only helps people how to navigate these four Decision TRAPs but also aligns with what science suggests is more adaptive for consistent exercise and healthy eating decision-making. For anyone who wants to see which of these Decision TRAPs are most likely getting in their way and how to overcome them, they can take my free quiz on my website.

Q: The series of steps to reconsider one’s plans when life gets in the way—which you refer to as POP!— involves metacognition, or thinking about “how you think about your healthy eating and exercise projects, plans, and goals.” What does it take for people to bring this thinking to their consciousness? 
A: Like anything we want to become conscious of, and not just automatically react to, it takes practice. As a parent, I want to pause before I react in order to develop the most productive response. In the same way, as we start to use the Decision Tool, we start to gain that moment of awareness we need at challenging points of decisions related to our eating and exercise plans. “Pause” is the first step in my Decision Tool (POP!) for this very purpose! We can’t grab this moment of awareness if we don’t first pause.

Q: What is on your stack to read? 
A: I’m reading books by Dan Siegel right now (Aware and Brainstorm) and I just preordered Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture, a forthcoming book by Virginia Sole-Smith. 

I tend to read nonfiction.

Q: The Joy Choice is your second book as we discussed. What is next on the horizon for you? 
A: I’ve been doing a lot of book talks all over the country since The Joy Choice was published so there are no plans in the works right now for another one! I am starting to conceptualize the next research project to advance what we know about creating sustainable change.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.