How to Make Healthy Food Decisions: To Eat or Not to Eat

We commonly see messages telling us what to eat or what not to eat for better health.

Splashed across the cover pages of health magazines, or trending on social media platforms such as Facebook, they tell us the best superfoods we should eat for weight loss (positive messages), or foods that we should never eat after age 30 (negative messages).

When it comes to making healthy food decisions, are positive or negative food messages a better strategy to follow?

'Don't Eat Cookies!' Negative food messages close to double the amount of unhealthy snacks eaten

Negative Food Messages Actually Backfire

A series of new research from Arizona State University have found that negative food messages backfire when getting people to make better healthy food decisions. Participants who were shown negative messages (‘don’t eat cookies!’) ate 39% more cookies than participants who were shown positive messages.

This follows research on thought suppression, which demonstrates just how incredibly difficult it is for us not to think about something. The theory of ironic processes, also known as the White Bear Effect, explains that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind actively avoids that thought, while another part actually monitors our thought processes to make sure that it does not come up, and ironically, induces the thought.

If this is hard to imagine, try suppressing a particular thought for the next minute. For me, I have an absolute soft spot for chocolates. Whenever I have a sore throat however, I find that the only thing that fills my mind is chocolate even though this is the first food on the list I need to avoid! It seems that keeping a list of foods not to eat is the easiest way to fall off the bandwagon, whether you are trying to lose weight, or keep a healthy diet.

White Bear Effect - Negative food messages backfire

The Clear Winner: Using Two-Sided Messages

However, the new research appears to highlight a winner in getting people to eat healthier – two-sided messages, which contains both positive and negative information about food choices. When shown two-sided messages, participants choose close to 50% less unhealthy snacks, as compared to participants who were shown negative messages.

Instead of warning people against eating particular foods, having balanced messages allow us to make conscious decisions in choosing healthier options. I feel that negative food messages inevitably associates food with feelings of guilt, and its presence leads to emotionally-driven eating. The includes the trend of clean eating, which in restricting the ‘clean’, inevitably passes judgement on certain foods as unacceptable. When taken to the extreme, these messages may cause orthorexia, an obsessive focus on healthy eating.

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