Some people are able to stick to healthy foods with no issues, while others find chocolate and cake too tempting to turn down. Now, a new study suggests that our dietary self-control may depend on how fast our brains decide whether a food is healthy or not.
The research team – led by Nicolette Sullivan, a graduate student of the California Institute of Technology – publish their findings in the journal Psychological Science.
Prior to conducting the study, the researchers hypothesized that people primarily make their food choices based on taste, while the healthiness of food takes a back seat in the decision-making process.
The team explains that people intuitively know what foods they like and dislike by their taste, but that they have to learn about the healthiness of a food, which makes it less likely to be a main factor in making food choices.
“What we wanted to find out was at what point the taste of the foods starts to become integrated into the choice process, and at what point health is integrated,” says Sullivan.
To reach their findings, the researchers recruited 28 volunteers who had not eaten for 4 hours to individually rate 160 foods on a scale from -2 to 2. Participants were asked to rate the foods by their healthiness, tastiness and how much they wanted to eat each food at the end of the study.
Next, the researchers randomly paired 280 of the same foods, and participants viewed them on a computer screen. Subjects were asked to use a computer mouse to click on which food they preferred in each pair.
Using novel mouse-tracking and statistical technology, the team was able to assess how quickly – on a scale of milliseconds – a participant made a food choice based on either tastiness or healthiness.
Overall, the researchers found that taste information influenced participants’ food choices 195 milliseconds earlier than health information. What is more, the team found 32% of participants did not make any food choices based on health information.
Next, Sullivan and her team split the participants into two groups: individuals who selected healthy foods – indicating high self-control – and those who showed low self-control by choosing unhealthy foods.
They found that participants with high self-control considered the health information of foods around 323 milliseconds earlier than those with low self-control, indicating that the faster an individual considers a food’s health benefits, the more likely they are to choose a healthy food.
The study results are explained further in the video below:
Sullivan says their findings suggest it may be beneficial to take longer making food choices:
“Since we know that taste appears before health, we know that it has an advantage in the ultimate decision. However, once health comes online, if you wait – allowing the health information to accumulate for longer – that might give health a chance to catch up and influence the choice.”
What is more, co-author Antonio Rangel says the team’s findings may also have implications for food labeling, noting that making the calorie content of a product more visible could influence how quickly an individual’s brain processes the information. “We don’t know, but this study opens such possibilities,” he adds.
In future research, Sullivan and her team plan to investigate the association between timing and food choices within a larger cohort. They also wish to use the mouse-tracking technology to assess self-control in saving and spending money.
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting social norms influence our food choices.