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The Secret to Sticking to a Healthy Diet Couldn’t Be Simpler

Hint: It has to do with eating foods you love.

Think of it as the “carrot” approach to a healthy diet, as opposed to the “stick” approach—as long as you like carrots. New research in the journal Psychology & Marketing finds that people who focus on eating healthy foods they actually like (mmm avocados and poke bowls!) are more successful at revamping their eating patterns than people who fixate on the misery of avoiding unhealthy dishes they adore (cue bacon cravings and rocky road daydreams).

“Focusing on what you can have, and can do, and should have more of is a better strategy,” says co-author Kelly Haws, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville. Food lists and advice framed in absolute terms (“never eat chocolate”) can be a recipe for failure, she adds.

It’s a feeling others in the nutrition field share. “Food lists are not effective,” agrees Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “People may look at those lists and think, ‘Those are my favorite foods that you’re saying don’t [eat] so I’m not going to even try.’ Or they try, then eat something [unhealthy], then beat themselves up. The more of a dichotomy we set up, the more a sense of failure, then the more people stop the plan.”

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It’s almost as if people who are “good” at self-control naturally set themselves up to succeed: Think of it as the Power of Positive Thinking, nutrition style. “We are more successful at sticking to our healthy eating plans when we think about healthy foods being attractive and exciting than when we dwell on avoiding unhealthy foods,” says Pam Koch, RD, executive director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City. “Thinking ‘Yes, I can’ gets us further than thinking, ‘I better not.'”

And a healthy diet doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all plan. In fact, the more tailored your diet is to your personal palate, the better: “Individualizing a diet pattern and lifestyle choices helps individuals make those healthier choices,” says Wright, who is also assistant professor of nutrition at the University of South Florida College of Public Health in Tampa. “You can still have a nutritionally healthy diet but [include] foods that are acceptable and taste good to that individual.”

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