The Mistake That Makes Healthy Eating So Much Harder

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Photo: Gandee Vasan

Generally speaking, all pieces of diet advice tend to adhere to one of two philosophies: You can be healthy by eating certain foods, or you can be healthy by avoiding certain others. Expand your diet, or limit it. Dos or don’ts.

The first method instinctively seems more fun, or at least less painful — you don’t have to throw out the tub of ice cream in your freezer; just maybe eat some veggies before you dig in with a spoon. The problem, though, is that so much diet advice tends to make eating well seem more daunting by billing the same so-called superfoods as inevitable stops along a narrow pathway to health. This is not, of course, true — not everyone likes quinoa; if you happen to fall in that camp but also want to be healthy, then eat healthy things that aren’t quinoa. Problem solved.

It’s a simple strategy, but as a study recently published in the journal Psychology and Marketing highlights, it’s one that often goes unused — when people struggle to diet, the study authors argue, it’s often because they ignore their own likes and dislikes when figuring out what to eat.

For the study — titled “Saying ‘No’ to Cake or ‘Yes’ to Kale” — researchers from Baylor University and Vanderbilt University asked a group of college students to pretend that they were starting a new diet plan. Half of them then wrote out lists of the foods they’d try to eat more of on this new regimen (the “approach condition”), and then ranked how much they liked each one on a scale of one to seven; the other half did the same with foods they’d try to cut out (the “avoidance condition”). Afterward, they took surveys designed to measure their self-control.

When the study authors crunched all the numbers, a pattern emerged: People higher in self-control also tended to be the ones who made things easier on themselves. If they were in the approach condition, they made lists full of foods they enjoyed; in the avoidance condition, they planned to shun things they wouldn’t miss much. On the other end of the spectrum, people with low self-control made plans that seemed unnecessarily hard to stick to, embracing ingredients they weren’t crazy about and putting their favorite foods on the restricted list.

Self-control, then, may be partly a matter of creating the optimal set of circumstances. “Individuals who are higher in self-control seem to naturally foster their goal pursuit by making the path to achieving a goal less onerous,” the authors wrote. “Although many dieters often focus on avoiding the unhealthy foods that they love most, results provided herein reveal that strategies such as this are unlikely to be effective unless individuals focus on avoiding unhealthy foods that they sometimes consume but yet do not consider to be their favorites.” More effective, it seems, is to follow your taste buds, following a diet that’s built more on pleasure than on self-denial.

It’s an approach that has echoes of the “non-diet diet” — the idea that you can learn to balance out through “intuitive eating,” relying on hunger and fullness to figure out what your body needs and keeping absolutely everything on the table (figuratively speaking). Nothing’s off-limits, in other words, so long as it’s being consumed for the right reasons. As Science of Us has previously reported, research on intuitive eating is still relatively scant, but other studies support the idea that restriction may be counterproductive — kids who grew up with rigid rules around snacks, for example, tend to find junk more appealing, and trying to fight your cravings can actually have the opposite effect, leading you to end up eating more of whatever you’d been trying to resist.

A good diet, in other words — good meaning one you’ll stick to — should probably have room for kale and room for cake. Assuming you like them both, that is. Otherwise, don’t bother with either, and go find something else to eat.