You’re probably thinking the answer’s easy: Don’t eat cookies! That’s a good start. But Cookie’s message can go much deeper, to an issue at the heart of the obesity epidemic in the United States.

I happened upon an episode of Sesame Street the other day and caught the tail end of a segment involving Cookie Monster. He’s the big, furry and blue guy who’s usually either talking about or eating a chocolate chip cookie. Well, in this segment, he was surrounded by fruits and vegetables. And his message was this: “Cookies are a SOMETIME food.” He said it more than once and referenced the apples, carrots and broccoli in his midst as members of the category: ANYTIME food. The message seemed clear and simple for impressionable young minds. And it got me thinking about how it might also apply to adults, specifically those who struggle with obesity and the “messages” they believe are true when it comes to food.

Research suggests that when a person considers any particular food bad or off-limits, the desire to want that food, and more of it, actually increases. Think about how this relates to you and imagine this scenario: There’s a birthday cake in front of you at a party. You repeatedly tell yourself you can’t have it, it’s bad for you, loaded with calories, fat and everything you shouldn’t want. The next thing you know, you’ve accepted two portions-worth of a slice and now there’s nothing more than crumbs on your plate. You feel terrible guilt for having “caved in.” An hour or so passes and before you know it, you’ve had a second two-portion slice of the same cake because you “already blew your diet anyway.” Your guilt spirals into orbit and you internally shame yourself for being so weak. Does this scenario sound at all familiar to you? Many people, whether they struggle with their body weight or not, can actually relate to it.

Now what if more of us accepted Cookie Monster’s message? What if we put some of these less nutritious, indulgent foods into the “SOMETIME” category in our brains instead of an “OFF-LIMITS” category? If we came from a place of sometimes, perhaps the above scenario would have resulted in accepting a smaller slice of cake, enjoying three-quarters of it, then taking a walk with friends after the party. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s science and psychology-both of which are equally important in understanding and combating the rising incidence of obesity in this country.

I would like to leave you with this takeaway unless a food is poisonous in a way that might threaten your life, delete the food file in your brain labeled: OFF-LIMITS. Replace it with a file called: SOMETIMES. Then set about surrounding yourself with lots of ANYTIME fruits, veggies, lean protein and whole grains. With practice, you might see some pretty significant results in the way you look AND the way you feel.

Don’t believe it? Ask Cookie Monster.