Negative food messages may lead to unhealthy choices

Ritu Puri

July 9, 2019

It is bad for you…is that why it looks so good?

Recent research published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research reveals that messages telling dieters that all sugary snacks are bad to make those snacks all the more compelling.

Is that why a cupcake looks so appealing? As do fries, chocolate, and sundaes. Are negative food messages actually steering you towards unhealthy foods?

Three studies carried out by researchers at Arizona State University revealed that one-sided messages about unhealthy food can encourage people to choose it, rather than deter them.

The study involved giving the participants one-sided or/and two-sided positive and negative messages along with neutral information. It revealed that dieters ate 39 percent more cookies after seeing a “food police” style message that slammed all sugary snacks as “bad” than those who saw a positive message.”

unhealthy food

Nguyen Pham, the co-author of the study, writes that instead of leading dieters to choose healthier options, negative messages “increase the attraction of unhealthy foods”.

The findings clearly suggest that using messages that convey only negative information about food may not have the desired effect. But government and various agencies have for long delivered the message that sugary and fried snacks must be avoided as they are extremely unhealthy.

What’s the way out to making healthier food choices? An infographic titled the Behavioral Science of Eating and released by Cornell Food & Brand Lab exhorts people to “read food labels carefully, prepare smaller amounts of food to avoid waste and to use smaller plates”. It also suggests installing a mirror in the kitchen as this move can help avert unhealthy choices. Don’t forget to make superfoods a part of your daily diet and exercise regularly. All this will ensure that you stick to the healthy habits you swore to at the beginning of the year and get healthier.

Naomi Mandel, the co-author, believes that their research indicates that negative messages about unhealthy food will backfire among dieters. “If you want to change what they eat, a more even-handed message that contains both positive and negative information is the way to go,” she has said.

About the Author

Ritu, who battled weight issues, acne and other health issues as an adolescent, managed to overcome these problems through changes in diet and lifestyle. Her success prompted her to pursue the subject professionally, leading her to a BSc in Home Science followed by an MSc in Food and Nutrition from Lady Irwin College, Delhi University. Ritu completed a training programme with All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) before working with Fortis Hospital, and the Nutrition Foundation of India. Serving as a Sr. Nutritionist at HealthifyMe, she aims to help her clients to make small changes in their lifestyle that will positively impact their health.

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