‘Foods You Should Never Eat’ and Other Negative Nutrition Headlines That Make Me Cringe


It’s really gotten crazy.  Almost every day I see another article about the “worst foods you can eat” or “foods you should never eat.”   Why is this a trend today?

I hope we can make a change in nutrition reporting and focus on what we should be eating.  Let’s elevate the positive instead of condemning foods.  Give people the “do” instead of the “don’t.”  That’s my wish.  I wrote about negative nutrition headlines that make me cringe for  U.S. News & World Report’s Eat + Run Blog.

Nutrition has become a click-bait worthy topic online. An enticing headline is typically all that’s needed to get you to click and read. Many of these nutrition articles use an approach that’s been shown to draw in readers: negativity.

Headlines that contain negative superlatives, such as “never,” “worst,” “avoid” and “don’t,” perform 30 percent better than those with positive adjectives such as “best,” “always” and “greatest,” according to research by Outbrain.

So that means readers are much more likely to click through to a story that uses negative wording in the headline.

That may be OK for other topics, but I’m troubled by this negative approach for nutrition articles. I would much rather focus on what to eat rather than what to avoid. Why not inspire positive behaviors instead of warning about the negative?

Turns out, that’s not simply my own philosophy for nutrition communications. Research has shown that a focus on the “do” will win over an emphasis on the “don’t.”

The latest evidence is from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. Brian Wansink and Lizzy Pope analyzed 43 published studies that examined nutrition messages of public health campaigns. The analysis, published in Nutrition Reviews, found that the public responded best to positive advice – or what they call gain-framed messages (as opposed to negative or loss-based messages). People want to know what they should be eating and why it’s good for them, instead of fear-based commentary or warnings about why you shouldn’t be eating other foods.

Wansink concludes: “Evoking fear may seem like a good way to get your message across, but this study shows that, in fact, the opposite is true – telling the public that a behavior will help them be healthier and happier is actually more effective.”

Interestingly, the study found that negative messages tended to work best with experts – such as registered dietitians and physicians – who were more knowledgeable about the subject. Yet, the general public who does not have the same background in nutrition would rather be told what they should eat instead of what they shouldn’t.

I’m a firm believer in that. This is why I wish certain trends in nutrition articles would simply fall out of favor. Here are three nutrition headlines (often combined with a number for a list) that make me cringe:

Foods Nutritionists Say They Never Eat

I must confess: I’ve been asked to participate in some of these listicles, but I’m going to stop. Rachel Begun, a Boulder-based registered dietitian, feels the same way. “While they are written with the best intentions of inspiring the public to eat healthier, I think they perpetuate a counterproductive message,” she says. “As a profession, we encourage individuals to find the dietary pattern that works best for them. However, these types of articles convey just the opposite – that everyone should eat like us, the nutrition experts. I’d like to start seeing more advice about how individuals can learn to tune into their own bodies and eat according to their individual needs and circumstances. I admit that I have participated in these articles in the past, but have since stopped for this reason.”

Worst Foods for Your Waistline 

You’ll find lots of variations of this: Absolutely Worst Foods You Can EatFattening Foods You Should Never Touch If You Want to Lose Weight and Worst Carbs to Eat for a Flat Belly. “These types of articles perpetuate the good food, bad food myth that turns people into emotional overeaters,” says registered dietitian Marsha Hudnall, president and co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run in Vermont. “The foods that are listed are usually foods people like, such as white foods, fried foods and cream-based foods. So when you inevitably eat them, you feel like you’ve done something wrong. The concept promotes an unhealthy relationship with food that is more about guilt than feeling good, which is what eating well is really all about.”

Skinny Rules You Should Never Break

Right off the bat, I hate to see the word “skinny” used in nutrition articles. Plus, these types of articles make healthy eating sound so rigid – and unpleasant. If you break the “rules,” you may feel you failed. and then you’re more likely to self-sabotage, says Pittsburgh registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, owner of Active Eating Advice. Plus, not all thin people actually eat well, she says. “A skinny body is not necessarily a healthy selfie.” This approach also reinforces the myth of perfect eating. “There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to eating,” Bonci says. “Rather than rules, find a plan you can follow that’s within your calorie and salary cap – foods that are enjoyable, accessible and affordable.”


Image: courtesy of Annie on Flickr

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  • Liv Faye

    Your posts are always so refreshing, Janet. I wish more people talked about this. I hate to see the word “skinny” when it comes to nutrition as well, although I’ve seen a lot of those clickbait articles come from seriously spammy, unprofessional websites. I like and agree with your point of view regarding the negative headlines, it’s true it can trigger all the wrong emotions when it comes to eating. However, I do think it’s important to share real information about what unhealthy foods can do to your body, in your opinion what would be a good way to approach this subject in news outlets? Love your writing! 🙂

  • janethelm

    Thanks Liv, appreciate your nice comments.
    I think it’s more about an unhealthy eating pattern vs. warnings about specific unhealthy foods. Sure, some indulgent foods should only be eaten occasionally — but I think if you inspire people to eat all the wondrous good-for-you foods (fruits, vegetable, whole grains, beans, lean meats, etc) — and give them ideas on how to prepare them, then you’re helping to crowd out the less desirable stuff without dwelling on the bad.

  • I totally agree! When I counsel nutrition clients, I always try to focus on the positive – “eat MORE fruits and vegetables”, “eat MORE snacks” versus telling them to not eat something. I don’t want to be viewed as the food police and I want them to have a positive association with me and with food.

  • Thank you again for so much an amazing post, Janet. And with all due respect (and much love) for my fellow nutritionists who are pitching attention-seeking titles to editors such as “XX Foods Dietitians Never Eat”, please don’t speak for all us dietitians…please? Such headlines simply feed into paranoid eating that already abounds. Besides, its this sort of sensationalistic journalism that quickly gets us “no-holds-barred-adventurous-eater-dietitian-types” uninvited to parties for being perceived as such “sticks in the mud”. Truth be told, dietitians’ eating habits and their accompanying health states can run the gamut, just like their patients and readers that they prosthelytize to. Many of my fellow dietitians indulge in “the forbidden” and come out realtively unscathed because they practice moderation; have great genes; exercise; help the elderly across the street… or who knows why. It’s not sexy but you are correct, Janet – its prolonged, unhealthy eating patterns that we should be warning our readers/patients about, not what poor unfortunate food to vote off the island, next. Yes you can have your bacon, pork rinds, candy or whatever demonized food or beverage you very well please…wait for it…wait for it…here it comes…IN MODERATION! Beware of advice that smacks of eliminating any food or food group for the general population. Also beware of those who dispense such advice – they often sport this kind of face 🙁

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