It is bad for you…but it looks so tempting.
Obesity now affects 34.9% of American adults, or 78.6 million people. The authorities are concerned about steering the nation toward healthier choices.
The US government and various agencies use public service announcements (PSAs) to advise consumers about the dangers of unhealthy eating. They deliver a strong message that sugary snacks are to be avoided.
Researchers at Arizona State University in Tempe carried out three studies to show that negative, one-sided messages about unhealthy food can actually encourage people to choose it, rather than putting them off.
In the first study, 380 participants read a positive, negative or neutral message about a dessert.
Dieters who saw the negative message had more positive thoughts about unhealthy foods, although the message did not change their thoughts about healthy foods. Non-dieters were unaffected.
Co-author Pham explains that instead of leading dieters to choose healthier options, negative messages increase the attraction of unhealthy foods.
More unhealthy choices follow negative messages
In the second study, 397 participants saw a one-sided positive or negative message about sugary snacks, followed by a short video and a supply of chocolate-chip cookies.
After seeing the negative message, dieters consumed 39% more cookies than dieters who saw the positive message. Again, non-dieters remained unaffected.
In the third study, 324 participants were given positive, negative or two-sided messages, containing both positive and negative information about food. They were then asked to choose a snack. The researchers wanted to see if the balanced message might be more effective in discouraging poor choices.
The negative message was associated with a 30% higher unhealthy snack choice than the positive message; 47% fewer unhealthy snacks were chosen by dieters who saw the balanced message than those who saw the negative message.
The findings suggest that using messages that convey only negative information about food may not have the desired effect.
Co-author Mandel warns:
“Our work shows 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.”
The research is published in an edition of the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research called, “The Behavioral Science of Eating.” The collected papers are dedicated to encouraging healthy eating.
An accompanying infographic that summarizes the findings advises 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; it apparently encourages healthier food choices.
Medical News Today recently reported that in exchange for an alternative reward, many people are happy to choose smaller portions of food.