Nutrition Articles

How a 'Bad Food' Attitude Can Backfire

Make Peace with Your Cravings to Drop More Pounds

Do you struggle with cravings and wish you had the will power to cut out certain foods completely? When we work toward a healthy diet, so many of us think that making a list of food culprits and calling them off-limits will help us to succeed. However, if you take a deeper look at the psychology behind this flawed method, you’ll see so many reasons why adopting a ''good food'' or ''bad food'' attitude will never work.  Restricting certain foods won't just make dieting miserable--it can also ruin your good intentions of getting healthy and losing weight. Making arbitrary rules about good and bad food isn’t the answer to lasting lifestyle change. Instead, use the tips below to build a better relationship with food, learn to master cravings, build self-control and enjoy all foods in moderation.
Stop Labeling Foods as 'Good' and 'Bad'
For decades, behavior analysts have studied the effects of deprivation on people’s preferences for food, tangible items and activities. The majority of literature on this topic says that, when we’re deprived of something, we’re more likely to select that particular item from an array of choices. In a recent study conducted at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, researchers found that participants who were asked to restrict either high-carb or high-protein foods for three days reported higher cravings for the banned foods. So, if you label chocolate as evil and forbid it from your menu, you’ll be more likely to want it in any form.
The good news is that some level of satiation (satisfying your craving for a particular food) can actually help you to avoid overindulging more often than not. If you can be conscious about your eating and have just enough of your favorite chocolate bar to satisfy that craving, you’ll be much less tempted to dip into the candy jar on your co-worker’s desk or buy a sweet snack from the vending machine.
This information about deprivation seems like common sense, but you’ve probably heard from friends or fellow dieters that the first step in avoiding high-calorie foods is putting them out of your mind altogether. Not true! Researchers are realizing that suppressing thoughts about a particular food can cause an increase in consumption of that food. In a 2010 study, 116 women were split into three groups. The first group was asked to suppress thoughts about chocolate, the second group was asked to actively think about chocolate, and the third group was instructed to think about anything they wished. Afterward, each of the participants was given a chocolate bar. The women who had suppressed their thoughts about chocolate ate significantly more chocolate than the others, despite identifying themselves as more ''restrained eaters'' in general. This just goes to show that ''out of mind'' doesn’t necessarily always mean ''out of mouth.''
Dump the Idea of 'Diet Foods'
Often, when people are trying to eat better, they start to categorize foods into those that are on their diet plan and those that are not. However, banning specific foods from your weight-loss plan may just make you crave them more.  According to an article published this year in the journal Appetite, a UK study of 129 women measured the cravings of those who were ''dieting'' to lose weight, ''watching'' to maintain their weight, and not dieting at all. The researchers found that, compared with non-dieters, dieters experienced stronger, more irresistible cravings for the foods they were restricting.
Noticing the difference between healthy and unhealthy options is definitely key in establishing a pattern of better eating. And, when you’re starting a weight-loss program, it does help to read food labels and menus carefully so that you can choose wisely. However, when you start to categorize specific foods such as candy, baked goods, alcohol and fried chicken as foods you can’t have, you’re setting yourself up for a backfire. The issue with labeling a food as a forbidden substance is that your thoughts immediately center on that particular item... and then you inadvertently start bargaining and rationalizing to get more of it. (How many times have you broken your ''diet rules'' to reward a trip to the gym with chocolate or a long day at work with a cocktail or two?)
There are some diet plans out there that advocate choosing a particular day of the week as your ''cheat day''--a day when you can indulge in all the foods you’ve cut out during the week. But listing certain foods as ''cheats'' or ''treats'' can set up a scenario where you’re depriving yourself all week long and constantly looking to the future, waiting on the moment that you’ll be showered with your favorite forbidden goodies (like those commercials where fruit-flavored candies fall from a rainbow).
Besides causing you to crave, labeling certain foods as ''forbidden'' makes it really difficult to be mindful of and content with the healthy food you’re eating most of the time. Instead of worrying about restricting foods, try to redirect your focus on creating the most delicious salad, grilling a succulent chicken breast or munching a juicy piece of fruit. If you turn your attention to the abundance of healthy options in front of you instead of weighing the pros and cons of particular foods, you’ll be more likely to really relish and rejoice in your everyday choices.
Make Sense of 'Moderation'
You’ve heard the line a thousand times: Everything in moderation. But what does this phrase really mean and how can you apply it to your healthy eating plan? Usually, people hand this advice out when they’re indulging in unhealthy food and drink and trying to get you to join in, say at a wedding or birthday party. So is it just peer pressure? Or is there something to this age-old saying?
Choosing to eat all foods in moderation works just fine for some people. If you have a healthy relationship with food (e.g., you have no trouble putting away the bag of chips after just one serving), then eating a little bit of your favorite food may satisfy your craving and leave you full until the next healthy meal.
However, for some people, it just doesn’t work that way. Sweets, salts and alcohol all cause biological reactions in the body that are hard to ignore. And, if you’re someone who responds strongly to these reactions, even one small bite can trigger you to continue sampling similar goodies. If you’re one of these folks, you’re definitely not alone, and it is important to know which foods affect you in these ways. Perhaps you’re a person who can have a bite of a sundae and pass the rest on to your spouse, but a fun-size candy bar can unravel your motivation and spark unhealthy choices for the rest of the day. Noting which tempting foods are your triggers can help you arrange your environment so that you don’t overindulge.
Rearranging your environment for success is the easiest way to change your behavior. If you do decide to indulge in a ''trigger food'' in moderation, opt to eat it in a place where there aren't any other snack options for you to munch on afterwards (a food-filled party would not be the best environment!). Choose snacks that you like, but don't love, so you're not tempted to eat too much but are still satisfied. Understanding which foods are likely to lead you down a slippery slope and preparing your environment and schedule for success will help you keep cravings at bay and keep your overeating under control.
Keep Cravings in Check
Cravings are a good thing. On a basic, biological level, cravings tell us when we’re hungry, thirsty, sleepy and even when we need some human attention. The problem is that, because we’re so accustomed to having easy access to eat whenever we want and we’re able to choose from many unhealthy foods, the ratio of our wants and needs are all out of whack! It is time to step back and become aware of what we’re really craving and why. When we can look objectively at our yearnings for soda, chips, cake and cookies, we can make much better decisions about what we put in our mouths.
One of the best ways to get back in touch with your true cravings is to keep track of them.  For a few days, keep a journal of the time of day, what you’re craving, and whether you’re at work, at home, on the road, with your kids, etc. You can still give in to temptation—this exercise will simply give you a clearer picture of how often you crave, what you crave and in what settings those cravings occur.
In behavior science, before we try to change any habit, we do an assessment like this to look at the person’s current patterns so that we can set goals for small, stepwise changes. You’ll likely notice a pattern quickly (e.g., I always want something sweet with my 10 a.m. coffee). Then you can put some measures in place to deter this craving or make a healthy choice before it happens (e.g., I’ll start bringing a piece of fruit to eat with coffee so I don’t grab a muffin from the break room).
With a little mindfulness, you can ditch the ''good food, bad food'' attitude! Plan carefully and stay in tune with your body to make sensible decisions that will satisfy your cravings and promote weight loss.
James A.K. Erskine & George J. Georgiou. 4 February 2010. Effects of thought suppression on eating behaviour in restrained and non-restrained eaters. Appetite 54, 3 (2010):499-503.
Jennifer S. Coelho, Janet Polivy, C. Peter Herman. 16 May 2006. Selective carbohydrate or protein restriction: Effects on subsequent food intake and cravings. Appetite 47, 3 (November 2006): 352-360.
David B. McAdam, Kevin P. Klatt, Mikhail Koffarnus, Anthony Dicesare, Katherine Solberg, Cassie Welch, & Sean Murphy. The effects of establishing operations on preferences for tangible items. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 38 (2005): 107-110.
Anna Massey & Andrew J. Hill. 18 January 2012. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite 58, 3 (June 2012): 781–785.

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Member Comments

  • Every now and then I get a strong craving for something not on my plan. If it won't go away after I try exercise, water, and healthy foods, I just let myself go for it. This works for me because I settle down and get back on track afterwards. Do you know what a Whoopie Pie is? It's like a squashed chocolate cupcake with fluffy white frosting inside. Well, even though I don't really like them usually, yesterday I was craving one badly. When the craving was driving me crazy, I just went out and bought one. After I ate about 3/4 of it, I was happy and took the rest home to my DH. Today I ate healthy and exercised! Giving in now and then works for me for some reason.
    I completely agree. Restrictive diets never work and 95% of people who lose weight will regain it. Eating sanely and mindfully may take you longer on your route to healthy living, but the results are long lasting. I found the article a little contradictory however as it described healthy and unhealthy eating options. That's pretty much the same as labelling food good or bad. It's only bad or unhealthy if you eat that way all the time. We need to develop a healthy attitude towards food. Some people with eating disorders, especially bingers and overeaters may have to restrict certain foods as part of their recovery, but few people can ever maintain that kind of restrictive eating forever. Eating disorders are a mental illness, and overcoming them lies in dealing with the mental illness. As someone recovering from BE, I found that the more I tried to restrict my trigger foods the more likely I was to binge. I have only found some success by dealing with the mental health issues that drive my eating, not by labelling foods good or bad. Slowly but surely, food is losing it's hold on me.
  • This article is awesome! I grew up with a mother who had an eating disorder. Food was always good or bad. She was always on us about our bad choices, referring to her own eating habits as I have been bad and going from one fad diet to another. One blessing is that I have never been tempted to do fad dieting, but I have always battled the need to do anything about my weight - I never wanted to admit "I am a terrilbe person at contolling my weight". Thank SparkPeople.
  • Yes, I definitely agree. I still indulge in my favorite foods even if they are unhealthy--becaus
    e if I try to cut out everything I like, I am just setting myself up for failure.
  • This article really "hit home" with me. It packs a lot of information to think about when trying to figure out how to manage cravings for particular foods (all-or-none vs moderation). The suggestions in this article are things I think will help me manage my cravings for sweets, especially chocolate. I think planning can be a very big key to addressing this issue when working to develop a lifetime of healthy eating practices. Thanks so much for publishing this piece.
  • Thanks for sharing.
  • I have been on a "program" for 3 weeks now. The first thing I noticed was I was not craving food. I believe this is due to I am getting the nutrition I was lacking eating what ever I wanted before starting a healthy way of eating. I still "crave" to eat foods that I still have in my home. I bought a cereal I love cause I had a coupon. I found my self dipping into the box just cause it was there. I find the best way to deal with this issue is just don't buy what you shouldn't be eating while you are on a weight loss plan. I admit...I don't have control at this time. Elimination is what works best for me. You can't eat what you don't have!
  • Very interesting article.

    For me, though, categorizing foods as a "no-go" was helpful at first. I know what my trigger foods are; delicious things such as chips, candy bars, mashed potatoes, rice, etc. So I actually intentionally strongly reduced those things, making them OK to eat on cheat days or for cheat meals. After I gained more self-confidence, I was able to slowly reintroduce these items back into my diet on a moderate basis. I used to want THREE CUPS of mashed potatoes in one meal. Heck, sometimes just mashed potatoes was the whole meal. However, once I reintroduced them, I was able to be satisfied with an actual serving size of .5 cup. I can buy candy now, and enjoy one piece a day versus inhaling the whole bag in one serving. In fact, I am now more likely to reach for a banana than I am to reach for the snack drawer at home.

    Different techniques work for different people. Experiment until you find what works for you as an individual. That has been the key to making a dramatic change in my lifestyle - now I can control the food, rather than the cravings controlling me.
  • Thanks for the article. I was on yhe south beach diet and I did good for along time but stop. I lost alot of weight. They had good food. I didn't have craving for sweets.
  • I also would recommend Spark People's "Mindful Eating Challenge." It helped me become aware of my eating habits, and helped curb a couple that weren't beneficial.
    I happen to really like veggies but if they said tomorrow that they aren't healthy I would have NO problem restricting them. It's not "labeling" foods that makes us crave them. Also, I'm kind of getting tired of the "everything in moderation" approach. It impies that anyone who is overweight doesn't know how to practice moderation and that's not always the case. Just as there are skinny people who can eat like cows and not gain weight there are overweight people who eat healthier than most, but still gain. I was even to the point where I'd feel guilty for giving in to cravings even in moderation, because during those times I'd feel powerless over the food. Since learning that most cravings are PHYSIOLOGICAL I've been able to really let go of the guilt that came from years of thinking it was simply my lack of willpower when I did give in. This is a new revelation for me but I'm hoping it will help me have a better relationship with food by understanding and accepting that certain foods lead to an uncontrollable urge for me physiologically regardless of how determined I am to avoid them.
  • The reason we crave certain foods isn't just psychological. We know that big food companies put highly refined sugar into just about everything. This means that the baby-boom generation onward has been primed for addiction to sugar. If eating just a little sugary, fatty or salted foods is impossible for you, it could be because of addiction. Stronger measures are likely needed to break the addiction.

    Excellent, excellent article! Explains a lot, very well written.

    Like many, my cravings are for sugar and any foods containing carbohydrates. Of the two, the carbohydrates are the most difficult to conquer. It has been that way since childhood, and it seems that they go together hand in hand. (No, I won't tell you how old I am, but DO speak from years of experience). With me, it's a mindset. I have more problems with carbohydrates than the sugar. Love bread, and many forms of starches. Although sugar doesn't come far behind. Maybe I'm wrong, but seems to me that maybe these types of food trigger the serotonin levels in some individuals.

    So, it boils down to the fact that moderation is the key to both of these items, and I have to be acutely aware of what goes into my mouth & how much, as well as not giving in to these cravings. Therefore, I think that it is actually a "mind over matter" thing with most of us.

    Also, a thanks to the person that wrote about Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous. I'll bet that many people never heard of this group. Will also check this out.

  • This is a great article. As one who has always been mindful of the effects of different things on my own body, including foods, I am acutely aware that if I eat sugar in the morning I'm setting myself up for sugar all day unless there is absolutely no more in the house. I do crave things like chocolate and potato chips so I try very hard not to have those things in my cabinets. Still, if the craving persists, while I'm out, I will get ONE chocolate bar or one small bag of potato chips to satisfy my craving. It helps.
  • Learning what is really in junk foods has changed my life. Because of this, I have eliminated most junk foods unless it is something I have cooked myself. Store bought junk food is just what it is-JUNK. There are over 20 ingredients in a Twinkie, sand and petroleum products are included in Doritos, Cheetos, etc. "Natural flavors" and the artificial colors have been linked to altering the chemistry in our brains, to releasing hormones that cause us to continue eating their nasty food. Fast food restaruants serve beef from cows that are fed trash candy to fatten them up and antibiotics. I don't want these chemicals in my body therefore I don't eat that crap. It's about more than just my weight-it's about my and my families health. Therefore when I really crave something sweet-knowing that I have to cook it myself makes me think about do I really want this or can I just ignore the craving. I make way better pizzas from scratch than Papa Johns, better cakes, cookies, etc. So in my book-yes there are some bad foods that I won't eat and I won't let my son eat either.

About The Author

Megan Coatley Megan Coatley
Megan is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with a masterís degree in applied behavior analysis from Western Michigan University. As a health and wellness coach, she combines her passion for nutrition and fitness with her professional talents to help others creative positive, lasting change and live healthier lives.

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