People with high self-control have a cunning approach to healthy eating

If challenged to think of ways to eat more healthily, something like this would probably go through my mind: “Could try to eat more blueberries (but yuk, I don’t like those much), and I suppose I should give up chocolate biscuits (but, erm, never going to happen, they are an essential part of my morning coffee routine)”. According to a new paper in Psychology and Marketing I am showing the typical approach to healthy eating of a person with low self-control and what’s more, my way of thinking is likely to lead me to failure.

Meredith David and Kelly Haws conducted two studies with hundreds of undergrad students who were asked to imagine that they were trying to live more healthily and/or lose weight. In the first study, they asked some of the students to list foods they should eat more of to make their diet more healthy, and they asked the others to list foods they should eat less often. Later, each student was presented with his or her list and asked to rate how much they liked each item on it. The students also completed a questionnaire about how much self-control they have in everyday life.

The results showed that low and high self-control participants went about this task rather differently. Among the students asked to list healthy food items they should eat more regularly, there was a tendency for the high self-control participants to like the foods on their list more than their low self-control peers liked the healthy foods on theirs. Meanwhile, among the students listing foods to avoid, the high self-control students tended to like these naughty foods less than the low self-control students liked their naughty foods.

Most striking was that high self-control students listing healthy foods actually rated these foods as more likeable, as compared with the ratings their iron-willed counterparts gave to the naughty foods they said they should drop (if this leads you to raise a quizzical brow, me too – something I’ll come back to later).

For the second study, this procedure was basically repeated but at the end the researchers asked the students to choose from a list of 16 healthy and unhealthy snack items which they’d like to take home as a reward for participating in the research. The telling finding here was that the more positively that participants rated the items on their self-generated list of healthy foods to eat more of, the more healthy their actual behaviour in terms of their take-home snack choices. In contrast, the more that participants said they liked the naughty items on their self-generated avoid list, the unhealthier their choices of reward snacks to take home tended to be.

The researchers said their results suggest a simple but effective strategy for healthier eating is to focus on eating more healthy foods that you actually find palatable, and to aim to eat less of naughty foods that you’re actually not that fussed about – an approach that seems to come naturally to people blessed with more self-control.

The findings are thought-provoking, but I can’t help feeling that they are a little weak to justify such bold advice. Another interpretation surely is that students who rated themselves high in self-control just happen to have healthier tastes than low self-control students. In fact, perhaps it’s because these vegetable-loving students have a greater liking of healthy foods that they consider themselves to have high self-control.

Saying “No” to Cake or “Yes” to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

8 thoughts on “People with high self-control have a cunning approach to healthy eating”

  1. “Another interpretation surely is that students who rated themselves high in self-control just happen to have healthier tastes than low self-control students. In fact, perhaps it’s because these vegetable-loving students have a greater liking of healthy foods that they consider themselves to have high self-control.”

    That would be the more logical interpretation. These people aren’t exercising self-control. I have never drank alcohol and hate the smell. If I go into a bar with a bunch of people who love beer and I say I’ll have a soft drink, I’m not exercising self-control because I don’t want any anyway. The headline on this is irresponsible and it is exactly this sort of thing which makes research look dubious in its desire to validate a hypothesis.

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  2. And how do you factor peoples’ ethics into what they eat? I’m vegan and consequently approach foods (fortunately almost all plant-based food is “healthy”, too) from the standpoint of “is this/does this contain, the product(s) of animal exploitation?”, whilst mentally making sure it’s nutritionally balanced: this sounds a lot more complicated than it is in practice, and surely, with ever more folk conscious of their food choices (and lucky to be able to choose) from ethical/sustainable angles, it has to be a factor? Self-control has different force according to its motivation, surely? My partner, also vegan, never managed to control his taste for milk chocolate until veganism stepped in!

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  3. There are some valid critiques here. However, the article’s suggestion that a good approach to dieting would be to eat more of the healthy things you like and less of the unhealthy things you don’t like, sounds very useful as I’ve just started a diet!

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