The “Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition”
Re-Run: Why “Healthy” and “Unhealthy” are the Worst Food Labels Ever
“I don’t even like unhealthy food…”
In my work with clients, my goal is that they not only reach their goals, but also that they can maintain their efforts through simple, automatic habits. A huge part of this is not only changing the external, obvious habits of health (increased activity, more formal exercise, modified food intake, etc.), but also transforming their approach to the smallest details – the words they use, the way they serve food, their attitudes towards body image, and more.
That’s why this month’s theme is “Outsmarting Yourself” – each week, I’m introducing simple habit and belief hacks to “trick” your brain into helping you achieve your goals. My philosophy is that the less effort it takes to think about a behavior (or if a behavior can possibly completely side-step conscious processing), the longer it will last as a part of your routines. This has been born out by my clients’ results over and over again.
Today, we’re going to talk about the “Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition” (unfortunately abbreviated by researchers as “UTI”).
What is the Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition?
In short, it is the unconscious belief that unhealthy foods taste better.
Doesn’t it seem odd that we would have to test this hypothesis in experiments? Isn’t it obvious?
Not really. Plenty of people I know (and have coached), as well as some of the subjects in this experiment, vigorously swear that they don’t even like junk food, and that they eat “really healthy” and “love healthy food.”
Even if you feel this way, however, your unconscious brain doesn’t agree.
This is why it is “unconscious.” We compute one way on the surface, but there is a deeper, stronger calculator that pulls us in a different direction.
However, like so many of our brain’s unconscious tendencies, this tendency can be utilized to our benefit.
Examples of Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition
To give you an idea of what this phenomenon looks like in real life, I’m going to illustrate it with a hypothetical example.
Let’s say you were presented with two smoothies, each one with an information card. Smoothie A is 300 calories, is made from sugar-free almond milk and almond butter, and is labeled as “very healthy.” Smoothie B is 500 calories, made from full-fat dairy milk, real chocolate, and peanut butter. Smoothie B is labeled as “very unhealthy.”
Even if you “like healthy food,” it is quite likely that you will enjoy Smoothie B more. Most participants do, when Smoothie B is labeled as “very unhealthy.”
However, what’s perplexing about unconscious beliefs is that I should be able to write: “…even though Smoothie B is labeled as ‘very unhealthy.'”
However, what is more accurate is: “… especially when Smoothie B is labeled as ‘very unhealthy.'”
What researchers have found is that our enjoyment of the food is driven by our perception – whether correct or incorrect – that it is unhealthy, regardless of the “health consciousness” of the taste tester.
We love indulging ourselves. We enjoy being a bit naughty.
How do we know this?
Here’s the craziest part:
Let’s say the two smoothie cards are swapped. In similar experiments, participants still typically choose the smoothie labeled “less healthy” as the tastier smoothie, regardless of the smoothie’s actual taste or composition
Hence: “Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition.” We love to be bad.
Sure, it’s a fun fact and interesting research, but what does this mean in a practical sense?
Here’s the main takeaway:
Do not stress so much over whether a food is “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
I often see quite high anxiety in my new clients in their (self-appointed) quest to be ultra healthy. In fact, on Mondays, they often sheepishly admit to – and quasi-apologize for – their weekend indulgences.
It is a process of re-education to impress upon them that I am not concerned about burgers, nachos, or beers. They do not have to limit themselves to, or even like, “healthy” foods. It is normal and truly healthy to eat and enjoy a wide variety of foods. Health is not a 30-day quick fix – it’s forever. So you’d better enjoy it.
But it goes deeper than this… What I see as the “dark side” of the Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition phenomenon is that the logical flip side is that we tend to enjoy “healthy” foods less.
So when we go through machinations to make our meals lighter, and make changes to food preparation driven by the desire to be “healthier,” we are essentially engineering a less enjoyable food experience, even if it tastes fine. Our very knowledge that we have been virtuous takes away some of the fun.
This often produces, in the inverse, the “healthy discounting” phenomenon that I describe in my online coaching groups, by which we take “healthy” foods less seriously, even though they may pack a caloric wallop. There’s a reverse “I Deserve This” phenomenon that happens with the sugar-free brownies or the gluten-free chips or the organic crackers.
To combat this tendency and create lifelong patterns of moderate, health-supporting, and enjoyable eating, it’s essential to remember that the way to lose weight is not to eat only “healthy foods.” Instead, the only way to lose weight is to eat less overall.
Does it make a difference to eat more nutrient-dense, voluminous foods that support overall health? Absolutely. Do I think you should sit at the TV with an open, family-size bag of regular potato chips? Of course not. Let’s keep it in the realm of common sense.
But whether you make a “healthy choice” with a salad, or really, really enjoy a good burger, you will only lose weight if your caloric intake is less than your caloric output. When it comes to weight loss, energy balance is everything.
Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition is the reason “clean eating” can backfire. If you’re consciously avoiding tasty foods, this can place too much stress on your unconscious preference for foods that you perceive to be unhealthy. Your willpower can get strained, which often results in ups and downs in food intake that average out to more or less maintenance, rather than a deficit that would create weight loss.
To avoid this tendency, let’s focus less on the exclusion of “unhealthy” foods and more on the three following concepts:
Practicing “inclusive” eating means that you don’t necessarily cut out your favorites – you just eat more high-nutrition foods like lean protein, fruits, and vegetables. This will not only improve your sense of fullness and satisfaction, but will also contribute to your overall health. Plus, it is likely that you will end up eating less food overall.
Consciously Enjoying Treats
Take time to choose foods you love and really savor them. If you love real ice cream, periodically take time to enjoy real ice cream in moderate serving sizes. Like I said last week, a small ice cream cone is just as satisfying as a pint.
Food Choices vs. Food Practices
When people try to lose weight, they often over-focus on food choices (“do I get the honey mustard or the vinaigrette??”), rather than food practices. However, when you consider that we make upwards of 200 food choices every day, isolating one or two decisions is not going to make the impact we want. Instead, it’s important to be reflective about our big-picture habits and attitudes, like:
- Do we often use food for comfort or entertainment?
- Do we often eat while distracted?
- Do we often eat mindlessly, without taking the extra step to monitor portion size?
- Do we tend to graze on large bags of snacks?
Whether a food is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” these habits will have an incredible effect on our weight and health in the long run.
In fact, I make the case that “healthy” and “unhealthy” are pretty much the worst food labels of all time. Not only do they tend to prompt health-conscious people to major on the minors, but because of the Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition phenomenon, the very act of labeling can mess with our perceptions of food enjoyment.
So this week, let’s focus on enjoying food more, slowing down our food judgments, and – in the process of making reasonable modifications to food intake – not stressing ourselves to eat perfectly. It’s important to recall that health frees us to enjoy the full experience of life – our quest to be healthy should not limit us, but instead empower us. Yes, increasing the quality of your overall food intake is going to be key, and “lightening up” your approach to cooking is a valuable tool -but is still just one tool. Make sure that, in the process, you don’t become tunnel-visioned on a quest to replace every ingredient with a lighter, “better” substitute. You may just be building a self-destruct button into your plan.
By using a more balanced, enjoyable approach, your weight loss efforts will be more likely to be:
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project (with weekly strategies to try out), sign up on this page to get these questions delivered directly to your inbox each week!
Last week in “Unit Bias, Segmentation, and Sneaky Portion Control Tricks” we explored the brain’s weakness for “guesstimating” portion size, and how we can use this blindspot to our advantage.
Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:
- Question 1: Did you try out any of the “unit bias” or “segmentation” tricks this week?
- Question 2: What were your thoughts on the concept of “visual appetite?”
- Question 3: What is the biggest change in your thinking about hunger, after reading last week’s post?