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Diet-Shaming Just Makes People Eat More Junk

It would seem that food warnings actually “backfire” and make unhealthy foods even more appealing to dieters.
Photo via Flickr user Steven Depolo


If humans were rational creatures we would look at these five words, which are backed by ample research, and think twice about dipping our hands in the proverbial cookie jar.

But if basic human psychology and food research have taught us anything, it's that we are fundamentally irrational creatures, especially where high concentration sugars, fats, feelings, or alcohol are concerned.


READ: It's Not Junk Food, It's You

Now, Arizona State University researchers are throwing yet another morsel of data onto the pile of research corroborating human weakness in the face of sweets. It turns out that those five caps-locked words will do next to nothing to dissuade hungry people from one of the most reliable sources of pleasure around.

The self-proclaimed "food police" behind a recent study even posted this helpful video on YouTube to further remind people how stupid they are and offering an explanation for why Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-junk food messages didn't work.

In fact, it would seem that such warnings actually "backfire" and make the unhealthy foods even more appealing. The study, entitled "Messages from the Food Police: How Food-Related Warnings Backfire among Dieters," was broken down into three experiments.

In the first, 380 participants read a positive, negative, or neutral message about dessert. What the research team found was that subjects who were dieting and saw the negative message actually had even more positive thoughts about unhealthy foods, but that there was no discernible difference for non-dieters.

"What these results show us is that rather than leading dieters to make healthier choices, these food police messages are actually making unhealthy foods even more enticing to dieters," Nguyen Pham said in a press release.

The second experiment had 397 subjects watch a video while eating chocolate-chip cookies, after having read either a positive or negative message about sugary snacks. Sure enough, those who had read the negative message ended up eating 39 percent more cookies than those who saw the positive message.

Finally, as if it weren't already pretty clear at this point that dieters love indulge when they're told not to, a third experiment was conducted wherein 324 participants were given only positive, only negative, or mixed positive and negative messages about sugary food.

Once again, dieters who saw the negative message chose 30 percent more unhealthy snacks than dieters who saw the positive message. But dieters who saw the two-sided message chose 47 percent fewer unhealthy snacks than those who saw the negative message.

The implications of this research are clear—negative messages do not dissuade. "Our work shows that negative messages about unhealthy food will backfire among dieters," co-author Naomi Mandel said. "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."

By that logic, a chocolate bar wrapper with "SUGARY SNACKS AREN'T THAT BAD FOR YOU, EAT AS MUCH AS YOU WANT!" could lead to more restraint among dieters, but something tells us that that's not realistic.