Anyone with blood sugar or weight concerns has a million tricks for eating healthy and trying to avoid feeling deprived. But, it’s hard not to feel left out when we see our friends or family enjoying foods when we’re “being good.” There might be a better way. It turns out that choosing an indulgent dessert before picking your meal may lead to you making better choices overall about your menu. People who had a wholesome dessert ended up eating more calories.
Researchers put cheesecake and fresh fruit at the start or finish of a university’s cafeteria line to see what impact it made on diners’ choices. People who picked the cheesecake chose lower calorie foods for the rest of the meal. People who picked fruit, perhaps feeling like the fruit allowed them a little leeway, selected higher-calorie food overall. The healthy dinner and cheesecake had 496 calories while the fried fish and fruit meal had 865.
The researchers interviewed 134 people over four days, surreptitiously noting what they had chosen and how much they left on their plate. No difference was seen when the desserts were at the end on the line. The cafeteria had a set price on the menu, therefore the cost had no impact.
“We believe diners who chose the indulgent dessert first then picked healthier main and side dishes to make up for their high-calorie dessert. Diners who picked the healthier dessert may have thought they already had done a good deed for their bodies, so they deserved higher-calorie food further down the cafeteria line,” explained one of the lead researchers, Martin Reimann, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at the Univ. of Arizona.
Almost 70 percent of the people who picked cheesecake then chose the healthier main dish, like chicken fajitas and a side salad, instead of fried fish and French fries. Only a third of the people who picked the fruit had a healthy main dish. On average, the cheesecake people ate 250 fewer calories than the fruit-eaters! That is a big difference when the people weren’t even making an effort to pick healthily!
While we wouldn’t suggest eating cheesecake daily, we do think this study sheds light on something. Trying always to make the right choices can backfire: people didn’t have cake, so they ate all their fries. Instead, consider your options and let yourself occasionally splurge to stop yourself from making consistently subpar choices. That way, you won’t feel deprived and you’ll make good choices overall.