In a culture constantly telling us that smaller bodies are better, it makes sense that many American’s are obsessed with losing weight.
Tapping into our desire to see a smaller number on the scale — often as quickly as possible — some have covered recent research on the connection between people’s mindset around meals and how much they eat as a trick for weight loss.
The study asked people to think about an upcoming lunch in one of three ways. They focused either on the health effects of their food, how much they expected to enjoy it, or their intent to stay full until dinnertime.
The people who thought about the health of their meal ate the least, while those who thought about the pleasure of their food or staying full ate more.
According to the researchers, these results imply that thinking about food’s effects on health leads to “better” — i.e. less — eating, whereas approaching food for taste and enjoyment leads to overindulgence.
Now, some websites are claiming these findings offer a “hack” to help us eat less. The reasoning: Just think about how bad a food is for your health and you’ll eat less of it. Weight loss achievement unlocked!
But this interpretation has received criticism from many nutrition experts.
In addition to sounding straight-up depressing, dietitians say that a negative mental approach to food could have unintended consequences, like causing weight gain and fostering an unhealthy relationship with food.
Plus, they have some serious issues with the study’s design.
1. Thinking about food as good or bad can have negative effects
First, intuitive eating proponents take issue with the idea of encouraging people to think of food as “good” or “bad” for health.
In fact, removing these labels is one of the primary tenets of the official intuitive eating program — an approach shown to help participants achieve weight loss, improve body image, and bolster mental health.
“No one food has the power to make or break health,” says Kathleen Meehan, RD. “There’s no need to micromanage your diet, or convince yourself of negative effects of a food in order to avoid eating it.”
Adopting a black-and-white outlook toward food may actually have the opposite effect as intended.
A focus on the negative effects of food on health can create a mental loop of guilt and shame — emotions proven to perpetuate unhealthy behaviors that result in weight gain, rather than weight loss.
“In my clinical experience, clients who have a good/bad food mentality suffer the most from chronic dieting, binge eating, negative body image, and poor self-esteem,” says Annie Goldsmith, RD.
Consequences of a black-or-white food mentality:
- weight gain
- shame or guilt about eating
- chronic dieting
- disordered eating, like restricting food intake then binging
- a negative body image
2. Eating less isn’t the best measure of eating right
Even if the study participants who thought about food’s detrimental impact on their health ate smaller portions, eating less isn’t the best measure of eating right.
“Defining healthy eating as eating less is scientifically flawed,” says Goldsmith. “The study conflates choosing smaller portions with making healthier, better choices. How do we know what each individual’s energy needs were at that particular meal?”
While consuming fewer calories does usually lead to weight loss, not all calories are created equal. The nutrient content of a meal may matter more than exactly how much of it we eat.
3. Is our relationship to food really that simple?
Critics also point out this study’s oversimplification of the human relationship to food.
Though scientific research must isolate individual variables, when it comes to our mentality toward food, most of us have overlapping thoughts and feelings that aren’t so easily teased apart.
Studying a laserbeam focus toward a single meal may only tell us about that single meal — not the more complex, bigger picture of intake every day, week, or year.
“This study does nothing to address whether being primed with a thought will lead to long-term, sustained behavior change,” says Goldsmith.
This study doesn’t refute studies that support a more flexible food mentality
In the end, it’s important to note that this study is, after all, just one study.
It doesn’t refute previous research backing a more intuitive, less rigid mentality about food.
To lose weight, you don’t have to keep your brain trained on how a food will affect your body or turn off your ability to enjoy a tasty meal. Thoughts about the health and pleasure of food both have their place in a balanced approach to diet.
It’s not wrong to make well-considered choices for healthy eating, like opting for a side of veggies over french fries, when that decision comes from your innate desire to eat well.
And rather than letting thoughts about food’s deliciousness lead you to overindulge, for example, direct them to help you eat more slowly, savoring every bite.
Above all, nutrition pros say to focus on a philosophy of compassion and overall mental and physical health.
“I would recommend to aim for a healthy relationship with food, which includes flexibility, variety, awareness, permission, and satisfaction,” says Meehan.
Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a nutritionist, freelance health writer, and food blogger. She lives with her husband and three children in Mesa, Arizona. Find her sharing down-to-earth health and nutrition info and (mostly) healthy recipes at A Love Letter to Food.