Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Healthy" Food Options Lead to Unhealthy Food Choices

I mentioned several theories of obesity from low carb and Paleo gurus in a previous post. Today, I want to show some psychological reasons why people make poor food choices, potentially ending up obese. The theory of eating cues is not meant to replace any other theories about obesity, merely to supplement them. External triggers are very real.

Two important studies in the Journal of Consumer Research show why “healthy” choices in a restaurant may lead to unhealthy meal selection. Words like “healthy” are in quotations marks, as the dominant paradigm of these studies is that low fat, high carb is good and high fat is bad. We Paleo and low carb types know better. Still, they make for very interesting reading and offer yet another reason why obesity may be increasing.

In the first study, consumers who went to Subway believed they were eating healthy food. This led to choosing a “healthy” sandwich, but several “unhealthy” sides, such as sugary drinks and cookies.  When asked to estimate the number of calories they consumed, they estimated, on average, 35% fewer calories than they actually consumed. They did not make this magnitude of error estimating calories when eating at McDonald’s. Subway is permeated by a “health halo” that implies all of the menu items at Subway are healthy. In reality, some sandwiches have more calories than a Big Mac. At McDonald’s, people are not under the illusion that they are eating healthy foods, so they may actually consume fewer calories than at Subway.

second study explains why this is happening. Consumers have a goal of eating healthier, and “healthy” items on the menu confirm their goal of healthy eating. The mere presence of a “healthy” menu choice does three things.  First, it vicariously fulfills a desire or goal the make more “healthy” eating choices. Second, it focuses the consumer’s attention on the least healthy item in the choice set. And finally, it provides consumers with a license to indulge. Their goal of eating at a “healthy” restaurant is met, so they don’t actually have to eat in a “healthy” manner, just eat at a “healthy” restaurant. This is what focuses their attention on the unhealthy menu options and leads them to indulge, and this study demonstrates convincingly that this is even true with individuals who have a high degree of self-control. The authors of this paper demonstrated this effect in four different studies across different contexts. It also works in vending machines with more “healthy” options (sales of Snickers bars go up).

What does this all mean? In the rush to add “healthier” items to the menus at unhealthy restaurants, the net effect is an increase in sales of unhealthy items. When “healthy” items are not present, consumers make “wiser” decisions about their “healthy” food choices.

So as I have shown before (here and here), cues, such as "healthy" food options, plate size, container size, 100-calorie packages, etc., have a direct and unrecognized impact on how people eat what they eat. So it is not all food palatability, carbs, toxins, NADs, modern lifestyle, genetics, or infections that lead to obesity. Sometimes, it is also pure psychology.

There are a lot of other food cues to report on, but all in due time. Keep watching this space!

No comments:

Post a Comment