Why you choose ice-cream over apples

• Sep 1 2016

If you find yourself regularly choosing “yummy options” over “healthy options”, don’t feel miserable. It seems the way the brain is wired makes it easier to choose “yummy” rather than “healthy”, even when it’s clear the healthy option is best.

A recent experiment (Sullivan, Hutcherson, Harris, Rangel, 2014) may have uncovered exactly why this happens, and why it’s going to take more than willpower to make the right choices.

In the experiment, a group of volunteers were asked to make a number of food choices, while being monitored to find out how long it took their brain to process different attributes in food.

It appears the brain finds it easy to understand a simple attribute such as “taste”, while an abstract attribute such as “healthiness of food” is much more challenging. In fact, on average, taste information begins to influence our choice about 9% earlier than health information.

So when it’s time to choose between the apple and the ice-cream, your brain will first decide on the simplest attribute — taste.

While it might not be possible to rewire our brain to first process  the healthiness attribute rather than the taste attribute, we can trick it into doing so.

The experiment shows that the brain will first focus on what is easy to understand. And that’s something we can use to our advantage.

If you want you brain to focus first on healthiness, find ways to make it easier to understand. Post nutritional information on your food containers. Make them bold and highlighted — get them to stand out.

The information is very easy to find. Just go to Google and type in “How many calories in beer” (or any other type of food or drink). This will give you the answer to your question, and a calculator you can use for any other item you want to search for.

Here’s what it looks like:

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-1-50-54-pm

You can also do this for protein, fat and a number of other nutritional facts.

If you’re not a numbers person, you can create a bar chart, print it out and stick it to your food containers. Here’s a free service that allows you to create charts easily: https://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/createagraph/

Here’s what that would look like:

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 11.51.19 AM

That graph took less than 2 minutes to do. More importantly, if you stick that to your ice-cream tub, your brain will find it a lot easier to decide based of healthiness, not just taste.

Bibliography

Sullivan, N., Hutcherson, C., Harris, A., & Rangel, A. (2014). Dietary Self-Control Is Related to the Speed With Which Attributes of Healthfulness and Tastiness Are Processed. Psychological Science, 26(2), 122–134. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614559543

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