How familiar does the following scenario sound? You stick to your healthy eating goals all week, taking the time to make a green smoothie in the morning and ordering a kale salad over fries at lunch. By the time the weekend — and dessert — roll around, you’re ready to splurge on a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s. You were good all week. You deserve it, right?
According to marketing researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, this tendency that leads you to make a pit stop in the ice-cream aisle after you’ve done your diligence in the produce section is called the “licensing effect,” and it can be seriously sabotaging your health goals.
The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Behavior, looked at the behavioral catch-22 we can fall into when we’re good: When we make healthy choices, we give ourselves license to make unhealthy ones. The researchers found that grocery store purchases in “virtue” categories (like fruits and veggies) improve a shopper’s self-concept and in turn increase the likelihood of a “vice” purchase (like that Snickers bar staring you down in the checkout line). Not good for our overall health goals.
So what can we do to avoid this unhealthy trick of the mind next time we go food shopping? According to Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Diet Change, your first line of defense begins before you even set foot in the store.
“Don’t go into a supermarket allowing yourself to be blindsided,” she says. “Create a shopping list, and then stick to it.” She also advises against going to the store hungry: “If you’re starved when you walk into the supermarket, everything is going to look good.”
Secondly, you have to have a strategy for coping with those moments of weakness. “Stop and take a deep breath, and realize what your goals are,” says Gans. “Unless your goal is to derail your healthy eating plan, it doesn’t fit.” In other words: Just because the ice-cream aisle is calling your name doesn’t mean you have to answer it.
And finally, knowing when to cut yourself a little slack can keep you from making big splurges. Gans calls these planned moments of giving into temptation, which allow us to retain control over our decision-making process. “No one is saying our shopping cart always has to be filled with produce,” she says. “We can keep ice cream in the house. We just have to make sure we’re not eating the whole pint, we’re eating a serving size.”
Ultimately, the cure for the licensing effect is a mindset shift. “We need to change the mentality that eating ‘good-for-me foods’ means we can eat ‘bad-for-me foods,’ ” says Gans. “Instead we need to be looking at the big picture, meaning all the nutrients that we’re choosing in a given day or week.”
She recommends applying the 80/20 rule to your diet — allow room for 20 percent of your food choices to be indulgences, and you won’t feel the need to go crazy in the dessert aisle.