A recent study in the journal Appetite examined the effect of eating chocolate cake. In particular, the researchers were interested in understanding the association of either guilt or of celebration with eating chocolate cake. In other words, when eating prototypic forbidden food like chocolate cake, were women likely to feel helpless and out of control (ie guilty) OR to experience pleasure and enjoyment (ie celebration)?

The study had two parts:

The first was to evaluate attitudes, perceived behavioral control, and intentions to eat healthily and their effect on a person’s reaction to eating chocolate cake.

The second was to evaluate if the association of guilt or of celebration was related to weight change over a period of time (6 or 18 months).

​This study did not find any evidence for adaptive or motivational properties of guilt.

In other words, guilt is not a helpful motivator! That is worth repeating: Guilt is not a helpful motivator.

Participants who associated eating chocolate cake with guilt did not report more positive attitudes or stronger intentions to eat healthy than did those associating chocolate cake with celebration.

Instead, they reported lower levels of perceived behavioural control over eating and were less successful at maintaining their weight over an 18 month period.

Participants with a weight-loss goal who associated chocolate cake with guilt were less successful at losing weight over a 3 month period compared to those associating chocolate cake with celebration.

The take home messages:

  1. Have your cake and enjoy it too!
  2. Feeling guilty after eating ‘forbidden food’  is associated with gaining (nearly seven times) more weight over an 18 month period of time than among those who do not report feeling guilty
  3. Guilt and regret often have a “What the hell effect” or what is known among psychologists as the “Abstinence Violation Effect”. This attitude justifies giving up on intentions. It is the classic, “I already ate four cookies I mine as well eat the whole sleeve of cookies”. It could also be in the form of “Oh well. I already blew it. I will start again on Monday.”
  4. To let go of guilt, treat all dessert like birthday cake. And treat birthday cake like the celebration it is!

Food is a wonderful source of pleasure, balance, and vitality.

​Enjoy food. Savor. Trust yourself and your (taste) buds!

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