How Restaurants Sabotage Your Diet With Healthy Foods
Want to cut the calories in that tempting piece of chocolate cake? It’s easy… just spoon some fresh fruit on top of it! Of course, the real calorie total increases, but new research shows adding a healthy topping to a food item fools us into estimating a lower calorie count for the combination.
A study scheduled to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology asked subjects to estimate the calorie counts of healthy and unhealthy foods and toppings. When dealing with a healthy base food (a green salad), the subjects correctly predicted rising calorie counts from both healthy (fresh fruit) and unhealthy (buttermilk ranch dressing) toppings.
But, when the base food was high in calories and “unhealthy” to begin with (chocolate layer cake), adding a healthy topping of fresh fruit caused the calorie count estimate to drop by 16%!
I know I’ve joked about eating a healthy salad to cancel out the calories in a decadent chocolate dessert, but it turns out that thought process is no joke – our brains apparently think that a healthy item somehow subtracts calories when added to something fattening.
Not Just Toppings…
While this study only looked at the effect of adding a topping to a food item, it seems likely our brains are fooled by the presence of healthy ingredients in any form. Take a carrot muffin, for example… carrots are good for you, right? Certainly a muffin made from carrots sounds healthier, than, say, a chocolate croissant. In fact, according to the Cosi nutrition guide, their carrot muffin packs in a whopping 470 calories (including 22 grams of fat and 62 grams of carbs). By comparison, a rich-sounding chocolate croissant from Starbucks weight in at a much lower 300 calories with barely half the carbs.
By incorporating healthy elements into the description of a food item, restaurants can almost certainly cause us to underestimate the calories of that item and make it seem healthier than it really is.
Even Unrelated Menu Items Change What We Order
Sometimes, the healthy item doesn’t even need to be part of the dish to affect our dining choices. An earlier study at Boston University found that adding a salad to the menu of a fast food restaurant more than tripled the sales of french fries! (See Dietary Decoys.) The authors of that study felt that the mere presence of that salad induced some diners to “lower their guard” when looking at unhealthy choices.
There’s no doubt that our brain’s reward system is engaged by high calorie foods. Unfortunately, what used to be an advantage for survival in our hunter-gatherer days now makes us suckers for juicy burgers, greasy fries, and rich desserts.
While restaurants don’t have making patrons fat as a goal, they do try to maximize sales by using recipes and food descriptions that appeal to their customers. The things we like to eat often aren’t nutritionally wise, of course, which pushes restaurants to offer less healthy choices.
As consumers, the best path to healthy eating is to take our subconscious impulses out of the decision process as much as we can. Focus on the nutrition data, if it’s available, and try to maintain Spock-like logic when choosing. And remember that adding anything, even healthy items, to an unhealthy dish will never decrease the calories!
Editor's Note: Author Roger Dooley is the founder of Neuromarketing, an industry-leading organization specializing in brain research and other relevant topics, and the president of Dooley Direct, LLC.
A consultant and entrepreneur, Doooley combines his knowledge of emerging phenomena like neuromarketing and social networking with decades of hands-on marketing experience to help companies understand the implications of new technologies and techniques, and implementation support.
He is also the author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing (Wiley, 2011). Find Roger on Twitter as: @rogerdooley
This story, which originally appeared in Forbes, is reprinted with permission.