Associating a prototypical forbidden food item with guilt or celebration: relationships with indicators of (un)healthy eating and the moderating role of stress and depressive symptoms

Psychol Health. 2015;30(2):203-17. doi: 10.1080/08870446.2014.960414. Epub 2014 Sep 29.


The increase in obesity and the many educational messages prompting us to eat a healthy diet have heightened people's concerns about the effects of food choice on health and weight. An unintended side effect may be that such awareness fuels feelings of guilt and worry about food. Although guilt has the potential to motivate behaviour change, it may also lead to feelings of helplessness and loss of control. The current study examined the relationship between a default association of either 'guilt' or 'celebration' with a prototypical forbidden food item (chocolate cake), indicators of healthy eating and choosing food for mood regulation reasons. Following a 'diathesis-stress' perspective, the moderating roles of depressive symptoms and stress were examined. Although a default association of guilt was found to be harmless under some circumstances (i.e. under low stress), those who associated chocolate cake with guilt (vs. celebration) reported unhealthier eating habits and lower levels of perceived behavioural control over healthy eating when under stress, rated mood regulation reasons for food choice as important irrespective of their current affective state, and did not have more positive attitudes towards healthy eating. Implications for public health messages and interventions will be discussed.

Keywords: chocolate; depressive symptoms; guilt; healthy eating; stress.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cacao
  • Choice Behavior
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Eating / psychology*
  • Female
  • Food*
  • Guilt
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • New Zealand
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult