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Healthy Menus Cause Some To Pick Less Healthy Options

April 30, 2009

A new study finds that simply thinking of a healthy food can satisfy our good intentions of eating well, ironically making it easier to eat less healthier foods.

Researchers at Duke University found that people were significantly more likely to choose the least-healthy option on a menu when the menu included a single healthy option, such as a fruit or a veggie burger.

“Because the healthy option is there, it somehow satisfies this healthy eating goal in them and then they felt liberated to sort of go crazy and choose something really, really bad for them,” said Dr. Gavan J. Fitzsimons of Duke University, in an interview with Reuters.

Fitzsimons, who led the study, and his team were exploring something they call “vicarious goal fulfillment,” in which merely having the opportunity to act in a way that achieves long-term objectives satisfies a person’s goal, even if they ultimately do not make the healthier choice.

The researchers hypothesized that people would select the least-healthy option on a menu more often when the menu included a food that represented a healthy goal, compared to when they were presented with a menu with only less-healthy options.

In every one of their experiments, Fitzsimons and his colleagues found their hypothesis held true.

For instance, among 70 undergraduate students, 37% chose a bacon-cheeseburger when the alternatives included a veggie burger.  However, just 17% did so when the veggie burger wasn’t on the menu.

Similar results were seen when salad was included on a menu with french fries, chicken nuggets, and baked potato (more selected the fries) and when 100-calories worth of Oreo cookies were offered along with original Oreos, chocolate covered Oreos, and golden Oreos (more people picked the chocolate-covered cookies).

Surprisingly, those with high levels of self-control were more likely to make the less-healthy choices when offered a healthy option than those who had less self-control.

Additional experiments showed that people who were more restrained unconsciously acted as if they had fulfilled their health goals by simply considering a healthy choice.

Fitzsimons concluded that persuading people healthier requires more than merely adding healthier options to the fast food or school cafeteria menus.   Indeed, people should avoid fast food joints altogether if they really want to keep eating healthily, he said, while schools should eliminate unhealthy choices entirely rather than trying to lure children away from the pizza with fruit and vegetable offerings.

By offering a few nutritious choices, fast food restaurants may entice health-conscious customers with the possibility that they might pick these items, Fitzsimons said.

As a result, purveyors of junk food continue to see their profits grow.

“It’s not from salads,” said Fitzsimons.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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