When it Comes to Unhealthy Foods, Sensory Cues Override Logic Nearly Every Time
You’re not dumb. You know the difference between healthy food and unhealthy food. Of course, we’re all going to indulge every now and then, but why is it that we often gravitate towards unhealthy food choices even during times when we’d prefer to go with our better intentions? According to a recent study published by psychologists at the University of Amsterdam, the problem might be that, in the battle between health warnings and food stimuli, our eyes and nose are consistently the victors.
The study, entitled “Failing to pay heed to health warnings in a food-associated environment” and published in the journal Appetite, looked at how well participants adhered to health warnings in both the presence and the absence of food-associated stimuli like advertisements or the sight or smell of food. In the end, the results are as the researchers predicted: Our willpower is weaker than we might hope.
“Health warnings for healthy food choices only seem to be effective in an environment where no food cues are present,” said Aukje Verhoeven, one of the study’s authors. “Whenever stimuli are present which people have come to associate with certain snacks, they choose the accompanying (unhealthy) food product, even when they know it is unhealthy or aren't really craving that food product. It didn't matter whether we alerted the subjects before or after they learned the associations with food cues.”
So how do we rectify this problem? The authors suggest not only reducing the amount of advertising for unhealthy foods, but also trying to build stronger associations and build more cues for healthy eating.
“It is worthwhile exposing people to healthy food products together with certain environmental cues more often, for example by showing more adverts for healthy products,” Verhoeven suggested. “The environment could also be shaped such that healthy choices are the easiest to make, for instance by placing healthy products at the front in canteens or by replacing chocolate bars with apples and healthy snacks at the cash register. In this way, you give people a gentle push in the right direction.”