Fear can be a powerful motivator. If you were afraid your poor health would prevent you from walking your daughter down the aisle, you’d probably be more motivated to eat healthy and workout. Sometimes fear seems like the only way to get a message through to your teenager, but as most parents can testify, fear doesn’t always work. When fear is used to motivate diet decisions there are three major outcomes to consider.
When fear has a positive effect
An infographic told me that my body would resemble that of a drug addict one hour after drinking this product. This is diet advice by fear, and while I said so in the comments section of that web article, no one else seemed to notice the lack of credible sources for the infographic’s bold claims. I suppose the goal is to scare people not to drink this product, and for some people, this tactic works.
In this case, fear leads to improved behavior. Perhaps it’s the fear of experiencing another allergic reaction that makes you read food labels more diligently. Perhaps it’s the fear of losing a loved one prematurely, so you always, ALWAYS end conversations with your mother with the words, “I love you.” These are just some examples of how fear (or love) generates a positive result. Do any of these sound familiar?
- Breast cancer runs in your family, and alcohol consumption increases the risk factor, so you chose to indulge rarely, if at all
- A story about the use of titanium dioxide as the whitening powder for white donuts has made you quit buying donuts for breakfast. Now you have fruit and granola.
- A news story about a girl dying after consuming two energy drinks has finally helped you kick your habit of drinking that brand four times a day
When fear has no effect
One of the most common problems with using fear as a motivational tool is how it eventually loses its power. Prop 65 Warning placards are so ubiquitous in California that locals don’t even notice them anymore. Some people feel so inundated by headlines about the newest ingredient causing cancer in lab rats that these consumers forget what they’re supposed to be afraid of, and just eat what they want. Here are some examples of fear-based advice that gets ignored:
- Caffeine and coffee can lead to increased anxiety, worse menopause symptoms, indigestion, and insomnia. However, caffeine and coffee has also been associated with health benefits including reduced risk in Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and suicide risk.
- Nitrate can be converted to nitrite by bacteria in food and in body, and nitrites can form cancer-causing nitrosamines in the stomach or while frying food at high temperatures. However, 80-90% of the nitrates people consume come from vegetables, a natural source.
- Carrageenan has been the target of some food activists, but the FAO/WHO Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives recently ruled that it was safe, even for infants.
There might also be instances when fear of one outcome has no effect because an even greater fear is in play. Perhaps you’ve heard the stories about artificial sweeteners causing cancer in lab rats, but you also heard those studies used doses much greater than a normal human would ingest. You try to avoid artificial sweeteners when you can but you’re much more concerned about your sugar intake because a family member suffers from diabetes. You always check labels for sugar content, and try not to exceed the recommended 10% of your total caloric intake from sugar.
When fear has a negative or opposite effect
Have you seen the show where a man is challenged to eat food that is too large, too spicy, or too extreme for the average consumer? Some people see fear-based diet advice as a challenge. For them, a warning that too many energy drinks leads to heart failure leads to a response of sarcasm, and the desire to prove the warning wrong.
- Negative criticism over the use of artificial colors has prompted many companies to replace artificial colors with natural colors. Some natural colors like procyanidins change color with the pH (acidity/alkalinity balance) changes, so the reformulated products are less vibrant and less color-stable. At this early stage of these reformulations it’s unclear whether these changes will increase food waste.
- Criticism over preservatives like sodium benzoate and benzoic acid has inspired some major food companies to switch to natural alternatives. However natural alternatives like nisinare are not as effective against the lethal microbe Listeria.
- Energy drinks (in general) are criticized as being dangerous concoctions of caffeine and sugar, but caffeine is safe up to 400 milligrams per day for a healthy adult. Sleeping at the wrong time is more dangerous than consuming energy drinks in moderation, and drowsy driving is considered more dangerous than drunk driving. When a train conductor fell asleep on the job, 70 people were injured and 4 died.
Fear is a powerful tool, but the direction that power pushes someone isn’t always predicable. If you are tempted to use fear to modify another’s behavior, remember that your plan can backfire. If you notice someone else using fear to dictate your choices, remember to first assess whether it’s a credible threat. With fear-based diet advice, are there trustworthy sources to back the claims?