Delicious Temptation

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Everywhere you turn in health- and diabetes-oriented media, there are warnings to avoid certain foods and ingredients — from saturated fat and trans fat to sugary, fried, and highly processed foods. It seems safe to assume that some of these warnings, such as to avoid foods with trans-fat-containing hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list, are narrow enough in scope that they are unlikely to backfire and remind people how delicious the forbidden foods are in the first place. But as a recent study shows, some warnings do indeed backfire — highlighting how difficult it can be to resist foods that, in the view of many, we are genetically programmed to crave.

The study, published in the journal Appetite, had both dieting and nondieting women as its participants. The women were shown images of either overweight or thin models along with written messages that either encouraged or warned against consuming chocolate. (Of course, chocolate may not be so unhealthy, but that is mostly beside the point of this study.) According to an article on the study at, messages warning about the health risks of chocolate made the women who were not on a diet more likely to crave chocolate (based on a study questionnaire). Women on a diet were more likely to crave chocolate when they were shown images of thin models.

The lead researcher of the study, Kevin Durkin of the University of Strathclyde (UK), speculated that the phenomenon of doing the opposite of what a warning suggests — known as “reactance” — may have been greater in nondieters because they have less of a genetic disposition toward self-control. It may also be possible, however, that they are simply in a less disciplined or health-oriented mind-set than dieters, making the mere mention of chocolate more powerful than whatever health warnings it comes with.

If this study presents a bleak picture of self-control, a 2008 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research may be even bleaker. As described in an article at ScienceDaily, the study found that participants who were given a chocolate truffle, and ate it, experienced greater cravings afterward for high-calorie foods like ice cream, pizza, and potato chips. But those who resisted eating the truffle were hardly better off; once they were praised for resisting temptation, they were also more likely to crave unhealthy foods than healthy ones. The secret to maintaining healthy behaviors, it turns out, may lie in both resisting temptation and not feeling especially good about yourself for doing so.

How do you deal with cravings for unhealthy foods — by indulging now and then, or by trying to banish the cravings altogether? Do you believe your approach is successful? Do you ever find yourself inclined to do the opposite of what a health warning suggests you should? If so, why do you think this happens? Does a disciplined mind-set help you resist temptation, or can it be tiring and make you more likely to crave unhealthy food items? Leave a comment below!

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