Think of it as the “carrot” approach to a healthy diet, as opposed to the “stick” approach—as long as you like carrots. New research in the journal Psychology & Marketing finds that people who focus on eating healthy foods they actually like (mmm avocados and poke bowls!) are more successful at revamping their eating patterns than people who fixate on the misery of avoiding unhealthy dishes they adore (cue bacon cravings and rocky road daydreams).
“Focusing on what you can have, and can do, and should have more of is a better strategy,” says co-author Kelly Haws, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville. Food lists and advice framed in absolute terms (“never eat chocolate”) can be a recipe for failure, she adds.
It’s a feeling others in the nutrition field share. “Food lists are not effective,” agrees Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People may look at those lists and think, ‘Those are my favorite foods that you’re saying don’t [eat] so I’m not going to even try.’ Or they try, then eat something [unhealthy], then beat themselves up. The more of a dichotomy we set up, the more a sense of failure, then the more people stop the plan.”
The researchers worked on the assumption that people with high “self-control” make better choices than people with low self-control. In this context, self-control means how impulsive you are, and how able you are to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future goals.
The study consisted of two separate experiments. In the first, 176 undergraduates were divided into two groups. Individuals in one group made a list of foods they thought were good for dieting. The other listed foods that they considered bad for dieting. They then rated how much they liked each item in their lists. Researchers also measured where each participant fell on an accepted scale of self-control.
As predicted, people with greater self-control were more likely to list foods they liked in their healthy-foods column, and foods they didn’t really like anyway ended up in the “avoid” category. People with low self-control were the opposite: More likely to list foods they enjoyed in the “don’t eat” column, and more likely to list foods they didn’t enjoy in their “do eat” column.
The second study, which involved 200 undergraduates, confirmed these findings and added a second feature: Participants were given a list of 16 snack items, some healthy and some not, then asked to list their top five choices. People who had focused on avoiding foods they liked tended to choose the less healthy snacks. Meanwhile people who had focused on eating healthy foods they liked picked healthier snacks.
It’s almost as if people who are “good” at self-control naturally set themselves up to succeed: Think of it as the Power of Positive Thinking, nutrition style. “We are more successful at sticking to our healthy eating plans when we think about healthy foods being attractive and exciting than when we dwell on avoiding unhealthy foods,” says Pam Koch, RD, executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City. “Thinking ‘Yes, I can’ gets us further than thinking, ‘I better not.'”
And a healthy diet doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all plan. In fact, the more tailored your diet is to your personal palate, the better: “Individualizing a diet pattern and lifestyle choices helps individuals make those healthier choices,” says Wright, who is also assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida College of Public Health in Tampa. “You can still have a nutritionally healthy diet but [include] foods that are acceptable and taste good to that individual.”