Why Instant Gratification Isn’t the Right Approach for Disease Prevention
A food journal next to pieces of cut fruit for Disease Prevention

Although a quick fix diet is desired by many, Personalized Health Programs provide long-term, healthier solutions that prove to be more sustainable for disease prevention.

In the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel conducted a series of studies investigating instant versus delayed gratification. Now known as the famous marshmallow study, the experiment involved children being left in a room by themselves with a choice to either enjoy one reward immediately – a marshmallow, or to wait until the researcher returned, in which case the child was given an extra reward – a second marshmallow. The choice was simple: one treat now or apply a little discipline and receive two treats later.

In follow-up studies up to 40 years later, Mischel found unexpected correlations. The children who delayed their gratification ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, and better social skills. Turns out that applying a little discipline and the avoidance of instant gratification has long-term benefits especially when considering disease prevention.

The Gratification Of Fad Diets

When it comes to health and in particular reducing weight, the results of Mischel’s studies can easily be extended. Fad diets and corporate wellness programs promising to “lose 10 lbs in 10 days” provide instant gratification but almost consistently result in a return of weight. Extreme behavioral changes such as those seen in the “The Biggest Loser” can result in fantastic short-term weight loss. However, these changes are so radical and unsustainable that partial or complete weight gain inevitably occurs and tragically has been the case with many of the contestants.

We intuitively recognize that weight gain is rooted primarily in our lifestyle choices – eating and exercise habits along with mismanagement of stress or lack of sleep and the resulting hormonal changes. It does not come from a single marshmallow.

If we are more evidence-based, physiology explains it easily. Desired weight loss should translate to fat loss, not muscle and water loss. Fat loss is nearly impossible when changes are achieved quickly through diet alone. Dietary restrictions without exercise result in loss of lean muscle mass, and slowed metabolism which means fewer calories burned throughout the day.

If you are a goal setter, recollect “SMART” goals. In this case, ‘R’ for Realistic should equate to behavioral lifestyle changes that are sustainable and which eventually become the new norm and lead to disease prevention. This differs from drastic short-term changes that are impossible to maintain. Here, desired weight loss is equal to sustainable weight loss.

From a business perspective, instant gratification related to weight management in most corporate wellness programs almost always fails. As ‘dieters’ remain persistent in their weight loss quest, what results in ultimately “the yo-yo” phenomenon; repeated bouts of weight loss followed by weight gain. The financial impact of “yo-yo” dieting is directly related to the negative health outcomes, medications, and physician visits that arise from the increased likelihood of a number of conditions. High blood pressure and cholesterol, gall bladder disease, lower self-esteem, and depression are just a few that all translate to higher health care costs.

How This Relates to Disease Prevention?

Mischel explored achievement situations and the influences of human behavior which leads to choice. While not all children who chose to enjoy their immediate treat developed social awkwardness, lower SAT scores, and a greater likelihood of obesity, the study is a great reminder to all of us that sometimes the less desirable choice, resisting immediate gratification, does produce the best results.

So the question is: In attempting to reach your ideal health or improve the health of members of your workforce, would you prefer a long-term comprehensive approach examining behavior, decision making, and realistic lifestyle changes; or would you choose the Cabbage Soup Diet? Or you can simply ask yourself, which child am I?


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