February 5, 2016 3:57 pm
Updated: February 5, 2016 4:22 pm

Avoiding sugar? Here’s why scientists say your diet plans will backfire

Researchers at Arizona State University say they found that strictly negative messaging about unhealthy foods don't work.

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When you tell yourself to avoid sugar, do you find yourself full of cookies, chocolate and self-pity? In new research, American scientists suggest that swearing off sweets is only setting you up for failure.

In a series of quirky studies, Arizona State University researchers say dieters who create forbidden foods only end up backfiring on their eating plans.

It sounds almost intuitive – tell yourself not to eat cake, and well, all you’ll do is think about cake. But the researchers wanted to put this theory to the test.

READ MORE: How much sugar should you be eating? How to follow WHO’s guidelines

In one study, they handed 380 study participants a positive, negative or neutral message about desserts. Guess who was craving sweets the most? The group that saw negative messages about desserts had the most positive thoughts compared to those who had positive and neutral messages.

In a second study, 397 people read a one-sided positive or negative message about sugary snacks, and then they watched a short video while eating chocolate chip cookies. The group that was fed messages like “all sugary snacks are bad” ate the most cookies – 39 per cent more than their peers who had positive messages about sweets.

READ MORE: How much sugar is in Nutella? Canadian doctor decodes what’s in the hazelnut spread

“We looked at how much unhealthy food they ate in response to these messages and for non-dieters the messages didn’t affect them at all they just ignored them but for dieters the messages backfired and they ate more unhealthy foods,” study co-author Dr. Naomi Mandel said.

“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,” Dr. Nguyen Pham, one of the co-researchers, said in a university statement.

In a final study, the researchers zeroed in on snack choices. With 324 participants, the researchers learned that those were who given negative messages chose 30 per cent more unhealthy snacks compared to their peers who were told that dessert is a normal part of meal-time. One group received both messages – they chose 47 per cent fewer unhealthy snacks compared to those who were brainwashed about sugar being bad.

READ MORE: Self-control is within our reach, even when we’re tired, scientists say

The researchers say that policymakers need to pay attention to their findings. Villainizing sugar may backfire because consumers could be drawn to junk food even more.

“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,” Mandel advised.

The team’s full findings were published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. Read them

here.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

 

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