Kids and Compensatory Health Beliefs

The idea that negative effects generated by unhealthy behavior can be neutralized by engaging in a healthy behavior is unlikely to lead to a good place. Compensatory Health Beliefs, or CHBs, seem to be pretty widespread. A typical example, “I can eat this piece of cake now because I will exercise this evening,” was cited in an article published in 2004, when researchers developed a psychometric scale to measure CHBs.

Several years later, the scale did not seem to be performing as expected, and the measurement of CHBs was deemed “problematic,” leading other researchers into investigating:

(a) the kinds of difficulties that people experience when completing compensatory health belief scales; and

(b) what steps will be required to develop a future reliable and valid measure of compensatory health beliefs.

The researchers learned that study participants who did not necessarily believe in a particular CHB would engage in the associated behavior anyway. Another thing they discovered was that talking about the existence of CHBs did not help people escape from them.

Not surprisingly, it was found that the Compensatory Health Beliefs scale needed work. It became a frustrating project, because of the gap between what subjects were willing to admit, and the technicians’ ability to accurately measure the scope of their self-delusional beliefs.

This type of problem is typical of the “soft” sciences, especially when self-reporting is involved. It’s all about internal conflict, self-regulation strategies, and the need to escape from the discomfiture of cognitive dissonance, which basically means holding two opposing beliefs at the same time.

By 2015, the struggle to sort out and articulate the issue was still going on. An article from that year offered this definition:

Compensatory health beliefs (CHB) are a popular strategy that is used to resolve the temptation dilemma in a way that enables the belief holder to avoid feelings of guilt. Compensatory health beliefs are defined as the conviction that unhealthy but gratifying behaviors can be compensated with a healthy behavior, for example: “I can eat this cake now if I go jogging tonight.” Such beliefs relieve the holder of a guilty conscience and justify giving in to temptation.

One of the main and obvious problems is the lack of follow-through. People make these promises to themselves, but somehow when jogging time comes around, the running shoes are left in the corner and the person is more likely to be inert in front of the TV.

The disappointing result of promises made by someone to herself or himself is not surprising, of course. Humans are famous for their ability to rationalize and justify less-than-optimal behavior.

A more worrying dimension to the problem was revealed by British research, namely:

Children use the same psychological ploys as adults to justify eating junk food…

University of Derby doctorate student Atiya Kamal says primary school children use Compensatory Health Beliefs (CHBs) in the same way as adults.

Atiya brought this new facet of the problem to public attention after interviewing about 100 children of both sexes, between 5 and 10 years old and finding that “children do hold CHBs in areas including physical activity, media related activities, a high fat and high sugar diet, oral health and sleep.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Compensatory health beliefs: scale development and psychometric properties,”, 2004
Source: “A further look into compensatory health beliefs: A think aloud study,”, February 2013
Source: “Associations between Obesity and Diet-Related Compensatory Health Beliefs,”, August 2015
Source: “Children ‘copy junk food ploys’,'”, 08/30/11
Photo credit: torbakhopper via Visual Hunt/CC BY-ND

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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