The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Top Five Guilt-Inducing Foods (And What to Do About It)

Does guilt makes food more delicious?

Everyone knows what it's like to feel guilty about some mouth-watering morsel you just couldn't resist. But as I was researching food guilt, I was surprised to find out that scientists have created a guilt index based on how likely a food is to trigger taster's remorse.

According to a 2009 survey published in Appetite, the most guilt-inducing foods are:
1. Candy and Ice Cream (tie)
2. Potato Chips
3. Cake
4. Pastries
5. Fast Food

People were also most likely to feel guilt about food they ate in a social setting—perhaps because we tend to eat more when we're with others, and rarely use hunger as our guide.

My other favorite food guilt tidbit:
When people are asked to imagine how bad they'll feel about themselves when they eat a piece of chocolate cake, their estimations of how good it will taste and how much happiness it will give them goes up. It seems like a reverse conditioning effect: We feel bad when we indulge in delicious desserts, so when we imagine feeling bad, we assume the food is delicious—and anticipate more pleasure.

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That makes pre-indulgence guilt a very bad dieting strategy; as other studies show, it does nothing to boost willpower, and may even hasten our giving in to temptation. On the other hand, imagining how proud you'll be for resisting temptation strengthens self-control-and shifts all that pleasure off of the food, and onto saying "no."

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Studies:
1. Steenhuis, I. Guilty or not? Feelings of guilt about food among college women. Appetite 52(2009): 531-4.
2. Chun, H., V. M. Patrick, and D. J. MacInnism. Making prudent vs. impulsive choices: the role of anticipated shame and guilt on consumer self-control. Advances in Consumer Research 34 (2007): 715-19.
3. Patrick, V. M., H. H. Chun, and D. J. Macinnis. Affective forecasting and self-control: why anticipating pride wins over anticipating shame in a self-regulation context. Journal of Consumer Psychology 19 (2009): 537-45.

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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