The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

How Not to Give the Gift of Food Guilt This Holiday Season

Are you overloading your loved ones with indulgent treats they'll regret?

Do you make more indulgent food choices for your friends and family than for yourself?

That’s the conclusion of six studies by Juliano Laran, a professor of marketing at the University of Miami. Laran found that people are more likely to choose a healthy snack (e.g. fruit, yogurt, baby carrots, a nutrition bar) for themselves. For others, people picked an indulgent treat (e.g. candy bar, cookies, ice creams, or chips).

Why? When participants thought about their own choices, they recognized that they had conflicting goals (health vs. pleasure; long-term benefit vs. immediate gratification). But when they thought about what other people want? They assumed pleasure was the top priority.

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The holidays are a great time to rethink this habit of foisting indulgent foods on the people we care about. We may recognize our own ambivalence about the delicious goodies that go along with the season – but we assume others don’t share it. We think they enjoy the cookies, the drinks, and the family favorites without regret. (And why not? We’re much more likely to show the delight of receiving a tin of fresh-baked cookies than we are to report back on any post-cookie coma and its common companions, guilt and remorse.)

Given how many of your co-workers, friends, and family are likely to be thinking about their own health and weight, it’s worth reconsidering what you want to feed them this season. Not only are the typical holiday treats health traps; they also don’t make us (or others) as happy as we think they will.

Take, for example, a study I described in an earlier blog post. Women tracked everything they ate, along with their moods. The surprising finding: The women felt happiest and least stressed after eating an unusually healthy meal. Indulgent meals had the opposite effect – increasing stress and negative emotions.  

Another study, from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, found that the positive emotions associated with anticipating eating an indulgent food (like chocolate) rapidly decline after actually consuming it. The researchers note that indulgence not only doesn’t guarantee happiness, but is often followed by guilt. [The good news? Being tempted but deciding not to indulge did not lead to the same decline in positive emotions. So as you’re perusing the options at the next holiday party, you can remind yourself that forgoing the bourbon balls for some crudite will not kill your holiday spirit.]

Here’s my advice: As you think about what to bring to the office party, the church potluck, or the family get-together, consider bringing something less traditionally indulgent. For many, it will be a relief to see something healthy on the buffet table to balance the sweets and heavy holiday fare.

When choosing gifts for the people you care about, think about whether they might end up feeling conflicted about the cookies, chocolate, or other “goodies” you leave with. Yes, of course they will appreciate the effort and the gesture. But many people have confessed to me that they feel burdened by all the treats. They feel guilty if they eat them, and guiltier if they waste them.

If you know that someone in your life is making an effort to improve their health, or has expressed concerns about going overboard during the holidays, you’ll be a far better friend if you treat them to something they won’t regret: tickets to an event, a gift certificate, a good book, a manicure or massage, your own baby-sitting time or company.

I also encourage you to share this post with your own loved ones if you're worried about how you will handle the cookies and cakes they might be tempted to give you this season.

And if you do overindulge, for goodness sake, don’t beat yourself up about it. Food shame is a Scrooge you never need to invite to the party, and it won’t do anything to get you back on track.

Happy Holidays! May you know the joys of the season and take good care of yourself and others.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. She is also the author of The Neuroscience of Change and Yoga for Pain Relief.

Follow Kelly on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kellymcgonigal or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kellymcgonigalauthor

Studies Cited:

  1. Laran J (2010). Goal management in sequential choices: Consumer choices for others are more indulgent than personal choices. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 304-314. Read the original scientific article here.
  2. Hormes JM & Rozin P. The temporal dynamics of ambivalence: Changes in positive and negative affect in relation to consumption of an “emotionally charged” food. Eating Behaviors, 12, 219-221.

Teaser Image from Flickr, under a creative commons license.

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

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