Why Food Warnings Don’t Work


We’ve all heard this saying before:  a minute on the lips, forever on the hips.  Yet, these types of warnings to stay away from certain foods may have unintended consequences.  They may cause you to desire that food even more — and make you feel even more guilty after you indulge.  That’s the topic of my recent blog post on WebMD — hope you’ll check it out.

I wrote about an intriguing  new study that was published in the journal Appetite that suggests warnings to avoid certain foods can actually backfire.  It was conducted by researchers in Scotland and Australia who found that warning women to avoid chocolate because it can make them fat had the opposite effect – it caused them to desire it even more. Phrases like “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips,” did not scare the women off chocolate. Instead, it increased their cravings and consumption.

Led by Kevin Durkin at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, the study involved 80 college-aged women who were shown different print advertisements featuring thin or overweight models that included messages that were either positive or negative about chocolate – all phrases that were pulled from the Internet. The researchers wanted actual language that’s being used in the media (including well-intended “diet” websites) to keep the study as authentic and real as possible.  All of the women (ages 17 to 26) completed a survey to determine if they were dieting (high restraint) or not dieting (low restraint). After the study participants viewed the different ads, they had access to a bowl of chocolate candy on the table and were told that they could help themselves.

The women on a diet, or the restrained eaters, who were shown the ads featuring thin models displayed an increased desire to eat chocolate coupled with greater feelings of wanting to avoid it, and then indulged in higher amounts of chocolate and ultimately felt more guilt.

Those women identified as not on a diet, or the low-restraint participants, reacted to the negative ads by wanting to eat the chocolate even more. The authors describe the response as an example of “reactance,” which is acting the exact opposite of what you’ve just been warned about. This type of behavior is a fairly common response to health-related advice, they say. Warnings not to eat something because it is “bad for you” may have the contrary effect of increasing desire for the forbidden food.

To me, I don’t think any food should be viewed as forbidden. If we classify foods in our mind as bad, then we feel bad about ourselves when we eat them. I think it’s important to find a way to fit in favorite foods. Once you get rid of the idea that something is off-limits, you may find that you crave it less. This forbidden food loses its power over you. You’re able to enjoy it when you do eat it – and you won’t suffer from guilt or remorse afterwards.  If you know that you can always eat something, even if it’s “bad,” then you’ll likely be satisfied with a smaller amount when you do eat it.

Other studies indicate that positive messages about food are more motivating than negative. So my hope is that we shift our focus and think about all the wondrous foods to enjoy rather than what we should avoid. Look at what you should be adding, not subtracting. The only thing we should be losing is the fear.

Image courtesy of MarcSilva on Flickr

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