Want to Improve Your Eating Habits? Then Focus on the Positive

Study: If You Want to Improve Your Eating Habits, Focus on the Positive

New research reveals you’re more likely to develop healthier eating habits through reading positive health messages.

We see health messages and warnings everywhere: Magazine ads, commercials, not to mention articles (you know, like this one). They range from downright terrifying, like cigarette warnings that could easily inspire a horror movie, to bright and cheery, like Kelly Ripa telling you to brush with Colgate—and when it comes to improving your eating habits, you’re more likely to follow through when those messages are positive or gain-framed, say researchers.

A recent study from Cornell Food & Brand Lab analyzed 63 nutrition education studies to determine who is more likely to be impacted by positive versus negative health messages, and why. They found while evoking fear may seem like a good way to get your point across, the opposite is true: Telling the public a behavior will help them be healthier and happier is more effective than trying to scare them into healthier habits.

The majority of health messages today (in other words, the negative ones) impact health care professionals more than the general public—but why? According to Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, there are a few reasons:

1. We aren’t as involved in the issue
When you’re super-knowledgeable about healthy eating habits – like say, you’re a nutritionist – you’ll be more motivated by a negative- or loss-based message. The general public may not have that deep-rooted passion for the cause like a professional does, and therefore may respond better to messages that provide clear, actionable steps that leave them feeling motivated.

2. We prefer a positive outcome (obvi)
Of course we prefer a positive outcome—who wants to spend their day waiting for an anvil to fall on their head? Why would we strive for a future at all if it wasn’t a better one? We’re not about burying our heads in the sand though: Researchers found when a positive outcome is a sure thing, gain-framed messages are best (such as “you’ll live 5 years longer if you exercise more”), but loss-framed messages work best when a negative outcome is certain (such as “sitting will kill you“).

3. We thrive on facts and certainty
“When claims appear factual and convincing, positive messages tend to work best,” Wansink said in a statement. “If a person believes that eating soy will extend their life by reducing their risk of heart disease, a positive message stating this is best.” If they’re not as convinced, that’s when a negative message (such as “people who don’t eat soy have a higher rate of heart disease”) will have more impact.

As someone who sucks at the whole healthy eating habits thing, I can honestly say I’m more pumped to eat a carrot when I’m told about the wonderful things carrots do for my body, as opposed to being told how not eating them will make my eyes fall out.

So when you’re in need of some added motivation to improve your eating habits or hop on that treadmill, seek out articles or clips on the positive impact these changes will have on your life and you’ll be more likely to stick to them. You don’t need to terrify yourself into doing anything: That’s what CNN is for.

How are you improving your eating habits?

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Image: Healthy eating photo via Shutterstock

Krissy Brady

Krissy Brady is a women’s health + lifestyle writer who’s so out of shape, it’s like she has the innards of an 80-year-old. Instead of learning how to crochet, she decided to turn her emotional baggage into a writing career (genius, no?). You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter (you know, if you want).