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Researchers Say Good Options Actually Lead to Bad Food Choices

April 23, 2009 -- Maybe next time you see a tossed salad in a restaurant you should look the other way -- especially if you're on a diet -- because just seeing the healthy food on a menu may induce you to make a fattening choice, new research indicates.

Yes, that's counterintuitive, but it happens again and again, says Gavan Fitzsimons, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at Duke University, who led the startling study of what he calls "vicarious goal fulfillment."

The team's findings are published online in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

"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 WebMD. "Just seeing the healthy item and considering it makes you feel you've done your duty. It's crazy, but it's human."

Participants in a study who'd scored high on measures of self-control relating to food avoided french fries and other unhealthy choices when they had only unhealthy items from which to choose. But if a side salad was added to the selection list, even the most disciplined were more likely to take the fries, the researchers say.

"The one takeaway from this that I think is important is that consumers have to be really conscious of this tendency to lower their self-control and indulge when a healthy option is available," researcher Keith Wilcox, a doctoral student at Baruch College, City University of New York, tells WebMD. "It appears that by simply considering a healthy option, consumers are being more indulgent. So consumers have to recognize that considering something good may lead to bad behavior."

Self-Control vs. Temptation

The researchers asked participants to select a food item from one of two pictorial menus. Half saw a menu of only unhealthy items, including fries, chicken nuggets, and a baked potato with butter and sour cream. The rest were given the same options plus the choice of a side salad.

More went straight for the most unhealthy choice when the salad was an option compared to when it wasn't.

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