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Food Police Tactics Backfire

It’s happened to so many people: You make a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, then enlist your friends and family to keep you on the straight and narrow.

“If you see me eat something not on my diet, call me on it,” you proclaim on Jan. 1, determined in your resolve to finally achieve weight loss success this year.

And it works, maybe, for a day or two…possibly a week.

Then, the same people you enlisted for help are now more than a mere annoyance, pointing out your every slip from that resolution.

What’s worse is that their policing — which you requested in the first place — is most likely going to backfire and actually cause you to eat more.

The same could be said for messages we see online or in public, proclaiming that all sugar is bad or junk food is just that — junk.

Those messages actually make us more likely to eat the reviled food, according to recent research.

cookies Ruth Elkin
Photo courtesy Elkin

In a series of three studies, researchers Nguyen Pham, Naomi Mandel, and Andrea Morales from Arizona State University found that dieters ate 39 percent more cookies after seeing a “food police” message stating “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,” Pham says.

In the first study, 380 people read messages about dessert. Dieters who saw a negative message had more positive thoughts about unhealthy foods, but non-dieters did not show any difference, according to the researchers.

In the second study, 397 people read a one-sided message — either positive or negative — about sugary snacks and then watched a short video while eating chocolate chip cookies. Dieters who saw the negative message ate 39 percent more cookies than dieters who saw the positive message.

As in the first study, non-dieters were unaffected by the messages about food.

Photo courtesy Zacharzewski, SXC
Photo courtesy Zacharzewski, SXC

In the third study of 324 dieters, those who saw a negative message chose 30 percent more unhealthy snacks than dieters who saw a positive message. Dieters who saw a message that gave both sides chose 47 percent fewer unhealthy snacks than those who saw the negative message, the study found.

“Our work shows that negative messages about unhealthy food will backfire among dieters,” Mandel warns. “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.”

Food Police Tactics Backfire

Janice Wood

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APA Reference
Wood, J. (2016). Food Police Tactics Backfire. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 18 Feb 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Feb 2016
Published on All rights reserved.