“But I can have that cake because I’m going on a run…”

How many times have you said something like that? Replace the cake with some other temptation, and it may sound all too familiar. Well my friend, you are engaging in Compensatory Health Beliefs!

Compensatory health beliefs are a way for us to manage the uncomfortable feeling we have when faced with a temptation, but at the same time wanting to maintain our health goals. So when you remember that piece of cake in the fridge, and start getting hungry, but have been dieting for the past week, you may engage in a compensatory health belief. “I can have that piece of cake, because I’m going to work it off at the gym later“, you say.

I keep saying ‘you’, but I for sure have used them myself. It’s like having the best of both worlds. You get to enjoy the thing you want, but still act out the healthy behaviour afterwards. What could go wrong…?


Unfortunately, compensatory health beliefs are not as great as they first appear to be. Often times you may intend to carry out a health behaviour, to compensate for the negative effects of indulging in the temptation, but never carry it out. Even when that heath behaviour is carried out, it doesn’t necessarily compensate to the extent we imagine.

My cake analogy for example: Going for a run or heading to the gym may burn some of the calories of that slice of cake, but you’ll need to do a lot of exercise to burn off that calorie-dense sweet. You’re also not accounting for the spike in glucose levels, which may contribute to diabetes, or the excess fat that is now in your system.

But what can be done? The research around this is fairly new, and results are conflicting. From my own experience, I think that we all deserve a treat every now and then, but I think we should also be more honest with ourselves. Check in with your self, and try to be more aware of what you’re thinking and feeling when you get a sudden craving.

Enjoy yourself, but don’t let those temptations take over your health goals of living a better life. Good luck!

For the Psychologists…

Rabiau, M., Knäuper, B., & Miquelon, P. (2006). The eternal quest for optimal balance between maximizing pleasure and minimizing harm: The compensatory health beliefs model. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 139-153.

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