Sunday, March 18, 2012

I shouldn’t make you eat healthy food

Healthy foods have a serious image problem.  There are lots of foods that we know are good for us, but it is hard to get people to eat them.  Putting labels on foods like “low fat” or “good for you” immediately makes people want to run the other way. 
And now, there is even evidence that if you force people to eat healthy food it may backfire.
Stacey Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach explored how eating healthy foods affects other eating behavior in a paper in the October, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.  They were interested in whether requiring people to eat healthy foods might actually make them hungrier and thus interested in eating more food.
The key aspect of this work was the idea that someone might be required to eat a healthy food.  That is, if someone chooses freely to eat a healthy food, then they are acting in a way that is consistent with the goals of the way that they want to eat.  But, if someone is required to eat a healthy food, then their goal to eat is still active, and so they will remain hungry.
The authors tested this possibility in a few ways.  In one simple study, they approached students who were sitting in a public area at a university and offered them the opportunity to do a taste test on a chocolate-raspberry protein bar.  For some people, the bar was described as healthy (having lots of protein, fiber, and no artificial sweeteners).  For other people, the bar was described as tasty (a chocolate bar with a tasty chocolate-raspberry core).  After sampling the bar, people made a number of ratings including a rating of how hungry they are.  People who tasted the bar labeled as “healthy” rated themselves as much hungrier than people who tasted the same bar labeled as “tasty.”
Another study extended this experiment in two ways.  First, it demonstrated that people who ate something labeled as “healthy” actually ate more pretzels in a later part of the experiment than people who ate something labeled as “tasty.”  In addition, they demonstrated that this effect was strongest for people who had a low concern for watching their weight.  That is, people who already had the goal to eat healthy did not feel like they were forced to eat something healthy.  People who did not have the goal to eat healthy, felt like this goal was imposed on them, and so they ate more.
This study helps to make clear that eating food is more than just consuming calories.  At times, people want to have a particular taste experience, or to indulge in a snack, or to eat something rich.  And, yes, some people even have the goal to eat healthy foods or to feel good about themselves.  But, those eating goals end up having a big influence on eating behavior.
If the particular foods you eat satisfy the need of your body to get calories, but they don’t satisfy the other goals that you have related to eating, then the meal will not be satisfying.  As a result, you may continue feeling hungry and even eating, because you have not yet fulfilled your goals. 
If you are going to change your eating habits, then, you need to change your eating goals.  You cannot maintain goals like eating rich desserts and fatty foods if you want to diet successfully.  Even if you manage to get yourself to eat some healthy foods, those goals will remain unsatisfied.  They will nag at you and make you feel hungry until you do something about them.