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Healthy Menu Items May Sabotage Your Diet

Researchers Say Good Options Actually Lead to Bad Food Choices
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

Ironically, Wilcox says, "the effect was strongest among those consumers who normally had high levels of self-control."

Fitzsimons says the presence of a salad on the menu had a "liberating effect," freeing even the self-disciplined "to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice. In fact, when this happens, people become so detached from their health-related goals, they go to extremes and choose the least healthy item on the menu."

What's going on "is happening outside our conscious awareness," he tells WebMD. "People believe they are high in self-control, then walk up, see the healthy option, and somehow satisfy the health goal; then they have no goal and make an unhealthy choice. That's what we want to get out to the world -- that knowing your vulnerability gives you ammunition to resist."

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