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How being told what to eat can make us fatter

How do you feel when someone says “you shouldn’t eat that”? If you’re anything like me, it probably makes you want to eat whatever it is even more.

It’s human nature – we don’t like being told what to do, and this seems even more true when it comes to eating. Just look at the brouhaha that erupts every time some health expert suggests regulation on junk food.

New research from Otago University has found that not only do we hate being told we should eat better, but it can actually make us fatter. The researchers looked at over 1600 middle-aged women to examine the link between different types of motivation for eating behaviour, and body weight. What they found was that women who are self-motivated to eat healthily have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who do so in order to keep others happy.

Co-author of the study, Dr Caroline Horwath, says the results clearly showed that the more ‘self-determined or autonomous’ a woman’s motivation for eating healthily, the lower her BMI. In other words: we do better when we eat healthily because it makes us feel good and it’s enjoyable, than when someone tells us we ‘should’ because it’s good for us.

“The key difference is the quality of the motivation” says Dr Horwath. “For example, a person newly diagnosed with diabetes may be recommended by her doctor to make some changes to her eating habits. Her motivation to change initially comes from the expectation of others. But when it comes to sustaining change long term, a different quality motivation is needed. For example, a person might be motivated to make changes to her eating habits because she sees it will enable her to be around to see her grandchildren grow up, or will help her to continue taking part in physical activities that she enjoys – in other words, her motivation to make changes is linked to what is personally important and meaningful in her own life.”

These results don’t surprise me. When we started Healthy Food Guide magazine seven years ago, healthy eating advice often, despite being very sensible and sound, tended to have the unfortunate tone of finger-wagging about it, and – surprise – was ignored by many people. What we set out to do was not ‘you should’, but ‘you can’, and what’s more we’ll make it delicious and easy for you. And isn’t that the key to making any kind of change? No new habit is sustainable if it doesn’t also provide a payoff. When it comes to healthy eating the payoff is not only enjoyment but also better health, and when you start feeling good, you want to keep that feeling going.

When it comes to weight-loss, this makes even more sense. Going on a ‘diet’ is always going to be a hard slog and by its very nature, it’s not sustainable long-term. We can’t live with being restricted, so we go off the diet and the weight goes back on, with interest. Permanent weight-loss means permanent change in our relationship with food and our eating behaviour, and that only happens when we have that ‘a-ha’ moment and realise we’re doing it for ourselves, not because we ‘should’.

For more on making permanent, sustainable changes and losing weight, see our new weight-loss section.

First published: Oct 2012