While dieters often banish tempting foods from their kitchens, a new study suggests that keeping some sweet treats around might be a good way to build willpower.
In three tests that presented female college students with tempting foods, researchers found that the women exerted greater self-control when they had previously been confronted with a sweet treat they had access to — rather than just pictures or smells.
The implication, say the researchers, is that challenging yourself to resist temptation may be more effective than banning all sweets and snack foods from the house.
"The main message is that banishing food temptations may not be the best way to limit the amount eaten. Tempting foods can actually increase willpower," explained lead author Kelly Geyskens, an assistant professor of marketing at the Lessius Hogeschool in Antwerpen, Belgium.
It may seem counterintuitive to keep a food "threat" around, and dieters are often advised to keep junk food out of the house, noted Geyskens. But she said the idea is that tempting foods help trigger a person's "self-control strategies."
"When a new temptation situation subsequently arises, these activated strategies will be activated again and will be strengthened," Geyskens explained.
For their study, which is published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the researchers recruited female college students for a series of food experiments. In each study, the women were told that a candy manufacturer was doing consumer research, which involved showing them pictures of the candies — a food temptation — they could not immediately attain, akin to seeing an ad for candy.
Some of the women were also presented with a bowl of the candy and were told not to eat any — an accessible temptation they had to resist.
Soon afterward, the study volunteers were confronted with yet another lure: a bowl of M&Ms. The researchers found that women who'd already been tempted by the forbidden candy were more likely than those who'd merely seen pictures of that candy to exercise self-restraint around the M&Ms.
The findings, according to Geyskens, suggest that trying to remove all tempting foods from your daily life may not be the best weight-loss solution.
"In fact, if you avoid food temptations by banishing them, you will never or rarely experience self-control conflict," she said. This means that when food temptations arise, as they inevitably do, the dieter might not have the willpower to resist.
"In other words, we believe that self-control can be trained," Geyskens said.
However, she added, long-term studies are still needed to prove that a little temptation truly is the best diet strategy.