How a 'Bad Food' Attitude Can Backfire

Do you struggle with cravings and wish you had the willpower to cut out certain foods completely? When we work toward a healthy diet, so many of us think that making a list of food culprits and calling them off-limits will help us succeed. However, if you take a deeper look at the psychology behind this flawed method, you’ll see so many reasons why adopting a ''good food'' or ''bad food'' attitude will never work. Restricting certain foods won't just make dieting miserable--it can also ruin your good intentions of getting healthy and losing weight. Making arbitrary rules about good and bad food isn’t the answer to lasting lifestyle change. Instead, use the tips below to build a better relationship with food, learn to master cravings, build self-control and enjoy all foods in moderation.
 

Stop Labeling Foods as 'Good' and 'Bad'


For decades, behavior analysts have studied the effects of deprivation on people’s preferences for food, tangible items and activities. The majority of literature on this topic says that, when we’re deprived of something, we’re more likely to select that particular item from an array of choices. In a recent study conducted at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, researchers found that participants who were asked to restrict either high-carb or high-protein foods for three days reported higher cravings for the banned foods. So, if you label chocolate as evil and forbid it from your menu, you’ll be more likely to want it in any form.
 
The good news is that some level of satiation (satisfying your craving for a particular food) can actually help you to avoid overindulging. If you can be conscious about your eating and have just enough of your favorite chocolate bar to satisfy that craving, you’ll be much less tempted to dip into the candy jar on your co-worker’s desk or buy a sweet snack from the vending machine.
 
This information about deprivation seems like common sense, but you’ve probably heard from friends or fellow dieters that the first step in avoiding high-calorie foods is putting them out of your mind altogether. Not true! Researchers are realizing that suppressing thoughts about a particular food can cause an increase in consumption of that food. In a 2010 study, 116 women were split into three groups. The first group was asked to suppress thoughts about chocolate, the second group was asked to actively think about chocolate and the third group was instructed to think about anything they wished. Afterward, each of the participants was given a chocolate bar. The women who had suppressed their thoughts about chocolate ate significantly more chocolate than the others, despite identifying themselves as more ''restrained eaters'' in general. This just goes to show that ''out of mind'' doesn’t necessarily always mean ''out of mouth.''
 

Dump the Idea of "Diet Foods"


Often, when people are trying to eat better, they start to categorize foods into those that are on their diet plan and those that are not. However, banning specific foods from your weight-loss plan may just make you crave them more. According to an article published this year in the journal Appetite, a U.K. study of 129 women measured the cravings of those who were ''dieting'' to lose weight, ''watching'' to maintain their weight and not dieting at all. The researchers found that, compared with non-dieters, dieters experienced stronger, more irresistible cravings for the foods they were restricting.
 
Noticing the difference between healthy and unhealthy options is definitely key in establishing a pattern of better eating. And, when you’re starting a weight-loss program, it does help to read food labels and menus carefully so you can choose wisely. However, when you start to categorize specific foods such as candy, baked goods, alcohol and fried chicken as foods you can’t have, you’re setting yourself up for a backfire. The issue with labeling any food as a forbidden substance is that your thoughts immediately center on that particular item ... and then you inadvertently start bargaining and rationalizing to get more of it. (How many times have you broken your ''diet rules'' to reward a trip to the gym with chocolate or a long day at work with a cocktail or two?)
 
There are some diet plans out there that advocate choosing a particular day of the week as your ''cheat day''--a day when you can indulge in all the foods you’ve cut out during the week. But listing certain foods as ''cheats'' or ''treats'' can set up a scenario where you’re depriving yourself all week long and constantly looking to the future, waiting for the moment you’ll be showered with your favorite forbidden goodies.
 
Besides causing you to crave, labeling certain foods as ''forbidden'' makes it really difficult to be mindful of and content with the healthy food you’re eating most of the time. Instead of worrying about restricting foods, try to redirect your focus on creating the most delicious salad, grilling a succulent chicken breast or munching a juicy piece of fruit. If you turn your attention to the abundance of healthy options in front of you instead of weighing the pros and cons of particular foods, you’ll be more likely to really relish and rejoice in your everyday choices.
 

Make Sense of "Moderation"


You’ve heard the line a thousand times: Everything in moderation. But what does this phrase really mean and how can you apply it to your healthy eating plan? Usually, people hand this advice out when they’re indulging in unhealthy food and drink and trying to get you to join in, say at a wedding or birthday party. So is it just peer pressure? Or is there something to this age-old saying?
 
Choosing to eat all foods in moderation works just fine for some people. If you have a healthy relationship with food (e.g., you have no trouble putting away the bag of chips after just one serving), then eating a little bit of your favorite food may satisfy your craving and leave you full until the next healthy meal.
 
However, for some people, it just doesn’t work that way. Sweets, salts and alcohol all cause biological reactions in the body that are hard to ignore. And, if you’re someone who responds strongly to these reactions, even one small bite can trigger you to continue sampling similar goodies. If you’re one of these folks, you’re definitely not alone, and it is important to know which foods affect you in these ways. Perhaps you’re a person who can have a bite of a sundae and pass the rest on to your spouse, but a fun-size candy bar can unravel your motivation and spark unhealthy choices for the rest of the day. Noting which tempting foods are your triggers can help you arrange your environment so that you don’t overindulge.
 
Rearranging your environment for success is the easiest way to change your behavior. If you do decide to indulge in a ''trigger food'' in moderation, opt to eat it in a place where there aren't any other snack options for you to munch on afterward (a food-filled party would not be the best environment!). Choose snacks that you like but don't love, so you're not tempted to eat too much but are still satisfied. Understanding which foods are likely to lead you down a slippery slope and preparing your environment and schedule for success will help you keep cravings at bay and keep your overeating under control.
 

Keep Cravings in Check


Cravings are a good thing. On a basic, biological level, cravings tell us when we’re hungry, thirsty, sleepy and even when we need some human attention. The problem is that, because we’re so accustomed to having easy access to eat whenever we want and we’re able to choose from many unhealthy foods, the ratio of our wants and needs are all out of whack. It is time to step back and become aware of what we’re really craving and why. When we can look objectively at our yearnings for soda, chips, cake and cookies, we can make much better decisions about what we put in our mouths.
 
One of the best ways to get back in touch with your true cravings is to keep track of them. For a few days, keep a journal of the time of day, what you’re craving, and whether you’re at work, at home, on the road, with your kids, etc. You can still give in to temptation—this exercise will simply give you a clearer picture of how often you crave, what you crave and in what settings those cravings occur.
 
In behavior science, before we try to change any habit, we do an assessment like this to look at the person’s current patterns so we can set goals for small, stepwise changes. You’ll likely notice a pattern quickly (e.g., "I always want something sweet with my 10 a.m. coffee"). Then you can put some measures in place to deter this craving or make a healthy choice before it happens (e.g., "I’ll start bringing a piece of fruit to eat with coffee so I don’t grab a muffin from the break room").
 
With a little mindfulness, you can ditch the ''good food, bad food'' attitude! Plan carefully and stay in tune with your body to make sensible decisions that will satisfy your cravings and promote weight loss.
 
References:
 
James A.K. Erskine & George J. Georgiou. 4 February 2010. Effects of thought suppression on eating behaviour in restrained and non-restrained eaters. Appetite 54, 3 (2010):499-503.
 
Jennifer S. Coelho, Janet Polivy, C. Peter Herman. 16 May 2006. Selective carbohydrate or protein restriction: Effects on subsequent food intake and cravings. Appetite 47, 3 (November 2006): 352-360.
 
Anna Massey & Andrew J. Hill. 18 January 2012. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite 58, 3 (June 2012): 781–785.
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About The Author

Megan Coatley
Megan Coatley
Megan is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with a master’s degree in applied behavior analysis from Western Michigan University. As a health and wellness coach, she combines her passion for nutrition and fitness with her professional talents to help others creative positive, lasting change and live healthier lives.