The beloved and dreaded chocolate cake

You might have seen a ‘health coach’ talking to a contestant on a weight shedding, make-over TV show in a way that brings them to tears of guilt. Guilt over how they live their life and how they have a body heavier than the ideal. Supposedly it motivates them to run faster, eat less or lift heavier, but is it actually working to make healthier lifestyle changes? Guilt has the potential to make lifestyle changes but is it actually helpful to bring guilt into our conversations about food? You might have noticed the word being used frequently in the marketing of foods. A “guilt free” frozen yoghurt – does that mean I should feel guilty about eating full fat ice cream?

The typical example of a food that stimulates ambiguous feelings in many people is chocolate. Chocolate stands for enjoyment and pleasure but also worry about health concerns and weight gain.

Our clever neighbours in New Zealand published a study late last year where they investigated whether guilt as the default feeling associated with chocolate cake, could be linked with unhealthy eating behaviours and weight change. Almost 300 adults were included in the study and data on diet, lifestyle and views of specific foods were collected, including associated feelings with chocolate cake – the feeling of guilt or simply a celebration of indulgent food? A quarter of the participants associated chocolate cake with guilt. More than half of the whole study group had a desire to lose weight, with an overrepresentation in the group that associated chocolate cake with guilt. The group of people were also less likely to have healthy eating behaviours and were less confident that they could improve their eating behaviours.

A year and a half later, the participants were followed up. The researchers found that the people that felt guilty about eating chocolate cake had gained on average 2.4 kgs compared to the group without feelings of guilt, where the weight gain was only 0.4 kg. The people that had a desire to lose weight were also less successful in achieving this if they associated chocolate cake with guilt.

So what does this tell us? It is likely that eating behaviours and attitudes to foods are related and affect each other. But it doesn’t show any evidence that guilt can motivate. In fact, it shows that worry, concern and guilt about food is counterproductive when trying to eat healthy. Maybe we should acknowledge that food in itself is morally neutral. All types of foods are ok to eat and the reason for why we eat them are varied – not only because we need to nourish our bodies. There is also a possibility that trying hard to avoid a food increases the temptation to eat it. For example: what if I told you not to think of a pink elephant. Are you now thinking of the pink elephant? This might be one factor in chocolate cravings being such a common occurrence – chocolate is forbidden.

Enjoyment of food and eating is essential to well-being. Eating should be pleasurable and this study suggests that being overly worried about a particular type of food might be doing more harm than good to our health.

So enjoy your cake without the guilt and you’ll find you might not overindulge.

Original article: “Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss” R. G. Kuijer, J. A. Boyce


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