Researchers from a US university have published a paper that shows consumers are more likely to seek and consume sugary or fatty foods after seeing a health message telling them not to. In fact, they ate 40% more “bad foods” after being told a negative message about sugary snacks.
The researchers conducted three studies to show how negative messages can do the opposite to their intended purpose. In the first one, 380 participants read positive, negative and neutral messages about desserts. Those who were on a diet were more likely to look at the “negative foods” in a positive light than those who were not dieting.
In the second study of almost 400 participants, dieters who saw a negative message about sugary snacks then consumed 40% more cookies than dieters who saw a positive message. In the third study, they introduced a two-sided message, and this lead to a reduction in the consumption of sugary snacks.
The bottom line is, dieters will not respond well to negative messages about “bad foods”, because it is simply making them more enticing. To change habits of dieters, the messages must also contain positive information.
As a nutritionist, I know that we are sometimes thought to be like the food police, and the way we deliver health messages can certainly affect the impact that they have. This is the first time I’ve seen research that suggests that people may actively consume more sugary foods when told not to, rather than if they are given both the positive and negative messages. So let’s not just focus on why refined sugar is bad, but put a little more emphasis on some positives. And let’s be honest with ourselves, how many teetotal salad-munching nutritionists are there really? I for one enjoy a slice of cake now and then, and may partake in a wee dram from time-to-time. I just don’t make it a daily habit of it.
Messages from the food police: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-01/cfb-mft012516.php
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.