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Healthy vs. Junk Snacks: How We Choose

Study Shows Healthy Intentions Often Go by the Wayside
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 12, 2008 -- You intended to eat an apple but instead later found your hand moving toward the cheese curls.

You're a smart person; it's not like you don't know what's best. So what gives?

We often know what the healthy choice is for food, but we often don't actually follow through and eat it.

Researchers in the Netherlands decided to explore what type of choices people make when it comes to eating a healthy snack vs. going for the junk food.

The research team, led by Pascalle Weijzen of Wageningen University, gathered 585 office workers in on-the-job cafeterias. On average, the participants were normal weight with average BMI of 24.3; 65% of the participants were men. The average age was 40, and most were described as "highly educated."

Participants were given four snacks to choose from. Two of the foods were healthy -- an apple and a banana. The other two were not -- a candy bar or a molasses waffle.

The participants were told to select which one they intended to eat at a later time. One week later they made the choice from the same group of snack foods.

Within a week of making the choice the participants were asked to answer some questions. Here's what researchers found:

  • 49% of the participants intended to make a healthy choice.
  • Of this group, 27% later switched and chose an unhealthy snack.
  • 92% of the people who intended to eat an unhealthy snack stayed true and did.

Does this mean the urge to go for the unhealthy food choice is stronger than the desire for the healthy food?

The researchers write that it could be that intentions are ruled by our cognitive or thinking brain. But when it comes to making actual choices, they are often made unconsciously and more impulsively.

The researchers speculate that if you have good discipline, a positive attitude regarding eating well, and regularly do eat healthy foods, it could strengthen the bond between intentions and how you act.

Weijzen concludes that "a substantial gap between healthy snack choice intentions and actual behavior was demonstrated. Despite that gap, the results suggest that individuals who plan to make a healthful choice are more likely to do so than those who plan to make unhealthful choices. Because more than 50% of the population seems to have no intention at all of making a healthful choice, identifying tools by which this group can be motivated to choose a healthful snack is strongly needed."

The findings are published in the September/October edition of the Journal of Nutritional Education and Behavior.

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