Junk food shaming not as effective as hoped. Nutrition Nerd needs new shtick.

by Denis Faye | June 18, 2015

aholeI admit it. I’m a junk food shamer. While I’d never trash a person for what they look like, I’m the first to let loose a pithy comment about what they put in their mouth. If you’ve asked me for help with your diet and I catch you plowing through a bag of Cheetos or gulping down a Big Gulp, you’re in for an earful. And if I’m in the right (wrong) mood, I can be a flat-out jerk about it.

Mind you, it’s not that I like being an a-hole. (It’s more of a genetic thing. I come from a long line of a-holes.) I’m just trying to play the tough love card and drive home how food choices are the key to a healthy diet.

But new research shows that I might want to rethink my strategy. You’d think that talking someone out of eating crappy food would open up opportunities for them to eat more healthy food, right? Turns out it might not work that way.

In a study appearing in the journal Appetite, subjects were “disassociated” from  junk food like Reese’s or Coke, which is to say they were talked out of identifying themselves with that particular brand. Next, they were given veggies to eat. You’d think that, having been soundly rebuked for less-healthy options, they would be ready to turn over a new leaf. But, surprise! The folks who were disassociated ate fewer veggies than the control group.

Scientists theorize this happens due to a perfect storm societal bullshit. First, modern marketers have become really, really good at making us identify with their crappy foods as though they’re part of us. The best examples of this include: Are you a Coke drinker or a Pepsi drinker? Starbucks or Coffee Bean? Heroin or Cocaine?

Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the point. People are so tied to their brands that it actually takes willpower to separate themselves from them.

One can live a full and happy life without having a Coke and a smile™, but coming to terms with this ebbs their willpower, putting them in a weakened state when making choices. With this in mind, they tend to fall back on instinct, choosing energy-dense foods as opposed to lower-calorie, healthier foods that we actually need to learn to like.

Does it seem counterintuitive that humans crave fat bombs over salad? In the 21st century, yes, but we’re still packing the same brains we’ve been using for thousands of years. Back before we lived in a land of hyper-plenty, calorie-dense foods were rare, so we ate them when we could, filling out the rest of the time with easy-to-find fruits and veggies. Our brains didn’t need to develop cravings for produce because it was so darn accessible.

So, sadly, it’s completely natural to crave high calorie junk food and manufacturers exploit that. Our job is to overcome that–and that’s a hell of a task.

There are two take-aways here. First, eliminating junk food from your diet doesn’t need to be a cold turkey. Limit your portions. Save them for “cheat days.” And if you screw up completely, don’t give up. It’s a hard thing you’re doing, so cut yourself some slack and keep going.

And the second take-away? I need to stop being such an a-hole.



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