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Food-Related Warnings Tend To Backfire Among Dieters, Study Reveals

First Posted: Jan 26, 2016 12:37 PM EST

Sugary snacks are bad! We have all heard and seen this message. Researchers found that seeing these messages could backfire and may do more harm than good among dieters. In the study, researchers found that dieters consumed 39 percent more cookies after seeing a "food police" style message, "All sugary snacks are bad" compared to those who saw a positive message.

"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," Nguyen Pham, coauthor of the study, said in a news release.

The researchers carried out three studies that indicated that negative one-sided food messages have backfire effects. For the first experiment, they gathered 380 participants who read a negative, positive or neutral message about dessert. The researchers saw that dieters who saw the negative message had more positive thoughts on unhealthy foods. However non-dieters saw no difference.

During the second experiment, the researchers had 397 participants read a one-sided positive or negative message on sugary snacks. They then watched a short video while eating chocolate-chip cookies. The dieters who saw the negative message ate 39 percent more cookies compared to dieters who saw a positive message. The food messages had no effect on non-dieters similarly to the first study.

In the third experiment, the researchers gathered 324 participants and focused on snack choice and the reactions to two-sided messages, which have positive and negative food messages. They found that dieters who saw a negative message chose 30 percent more unhealthy snacks compared to dieters who saw a positive message. Dieters who saw a two-sided message chose 47 percent less unhealthy snacks than those who saw a negative message.  

"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," said Naomi Mandel, coauthor of the study.

The findings of this study were published in Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

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