Is a Healthy Food Option Sabotaging Your Diet?

Is a Healthy Food Option Sabotaging Your Diet?

Wondering why the weight isn’t coming off? Consider this – you might be unknowingly interfering with your goal, even if your resolve to shed those extra pounds is rock solid. This according to new research just seeing a healthy food option on a menu actually tempts you to chose a fattening food instead.

It doesn’t make sense, but according to researcher Gavan Fitzsimons, PhD, we’re all subject to what he calls “vicarious goal fulfillment”.

Before you dismiss the idea entirely, consider that while fast food places and vending machines have more healthy options than ever before, analysts point out that the sales of the fast food industry aren’t coming from those healthy items, but rather from the sales of calorie laden staples like burgers and fries.

We see the salad, but order the value meal instead.

This latest bit of research supports the idea that once we feel we’ve done something right, even if that’s just thinking about choosing a healthy option from a menu, we feel entitled to a reward.

“We’ve found that the presence of a healthy item leads people to choose the one that is the least healthy on the menu,” Fitzsimons tells online health resource WebMD.

“Just seeing the healthy item and considering it makes you feel you’ve done your duty. It’s crazy, but it’s human.”

Here’s how the team uncovered this bit of self-deception we feed ourselves.

Participants in a study who’d scored high on measures of self control and food were asked to choose a food from one of two menus with pictures.

Half of the subjects saw a menu with only unhealthy choices like fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato loaded with butter and sour cream. The other half of the subjects saw the same menu, but with the addition of a side salad.

When the salad was a choice, some subjects did choose it, but many more of those most self disciplined participants selected an unhealthy option. Even more curious, the effect was strongest among those who normally have lots of self-control.

For whatever reason, consumers seem to have the tendency to ease off on the self control when something healthy is an option.

Its as if they feel the goal has been met just by seeing, and perhaps briefly considering, the visual. This appears to happen outside our conscious awareness.

In other variations of the study, participants also made unhealthy choices. Most choose a calorie laden bacon cheeseburger, chicken sandwich and fish sandwich over a healthier veggie burger. For desserts, they picked chocolate covered Oreos, original Oreos and golden Oreos against cookies labeled as only having a 100-calorie.

One thing that could help with vicarious goal fulfillment is to constantly remind yourself of your intentions.

Anything that helps you stay in control and hold off on gratification will also be a plus for keeping you on track.

For some, wearing a rubber band on the wrist and snapping it before ordering keeps attention squarely in the present, making the unconscious less likely to take over.

“What it shows is that adding one or two healthy items to a menu is essentially the worst thing you can do,” Fitzsimons says. “This is all brand new research, showing that much of what we do is happening outside our consciousness.”