Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD
So often food and nutrition messages come in the form of scary headlines like “5 foods you should never eat” or “10 common nutrition blunders and how to prevent them.” But do frightening, negative messages or warning labels and taxes on perceived “bad” foods really help people make better food and beverage choices? Probably not, say recent studies.
Cornell University research presented at the July 2015 Society of Nutrition Education and Behavior Annual Conference found that people tend to respond best to positive messages rather than negative, loss-related messages. For example, instead of “eating fried foods will make you gain weight,” people are more motivated by “eating lean, grilled meat helps you shed pounds.”
Likewise, a study conducted at Arizona State University had similar results. Researchers compared negative and positive messages in dieters and non-dieters consumption of snack food. They discovered that negatively worded food warnings are unlikely to work because non-dieters ignore them and dieters do the opposite. That is, they actually eat more of the food!
While politicians try to legislate people’s eating habits by requiring warning labels or taxes on sugar and soda, these initiatives are usually doomed to fail. In a new report from the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institute, the authors conclude, “Taxes are an imperfect instrument for addressing nutrition and health concerns.….they are no substitute for efforts to identify and help people at the greatest risk from obesity, diabetes, and related conditions.”
As a registered dietitian nutritionist whose goal is to help people enjoy eating a variety of flavorful foods and beverages for health and wellness, I much prefer a positive approach of education to a negative one of regulation.
Neva Cochran is an award winning registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition communications consultant in Dallas, Texas. A veteran media spokesperson and popular speaker she was also a 20-year freelancer for Woman’s World Weekly magazine. She is a past president of the Texas Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and past chair of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation.
- “Which Health Messages Work Best? Experts Prefer Fear- or Loss-Related Messages, but the Public Follows Positive, Gain-Related Messages” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 2015; 47:S93
- “Messages from the Food Police: How Food-Related Warnings Backfire among Dieters” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2016; 1:175
- Should We Tax Unhealthy Foods And Drinks? Report from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, December 2015