Story at a glance
- It can be hard to choose healthy foods over tastier unhealthy foods.
- Studies have suggested that taste information is processed by the brain quicker or earlier than information regarding healthfulness.
- A new study suggests that timing of processing that information influences decisions about food.
Whether it’s a sweet tooth or an obsession with potato chips, some people have a hard time making healthier food choices. Is it because of lack of self-control? Or is something else happening in your brain that can help explain your behavior? In a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers examine how taste may have an advantage over healthiness when choosing what to eat.
There is no lack of choice for unhealthy snacks and foods and staying away from them can often feel like a losing battle.
“We spend billions of dollars every year on diet products, yet most people fail when they attempt to diet,” said study co-author Scott Huettel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, in a press release. “Taste seems to have an advantage that sets us up for failure.”
Turns out, how your brain processes information about the food choices may have something to do with it.
“For many individuals, health information enters the decision process too late (relative to taste information) to drive choices toward the healthier option,” says Huettel.
In the study, the researchers asked participants to fast for four hours before the experiment. The participants had to rate snacks on their tastiness, healthiness and desirability. Then they were given pairs of snacks to choose from while the researchers timed their choices.
The team uses a special model meant to be able to account for the rate of evidence accumulation at each time point to analyze this data. They can estimate when each attribute begins to influence decision making.
Past studies showed that processing taste information is quicker than processing health information. In this model, the researchers account for that by weighting taste and health differently so they can potentially assess each attribute’s individual contributions to making a choice.
The researchers compared the timing that the model predicted with the experimental results. They found that it took 400 milliseconds for participants to incorporate taste information and about twice as long for healthiness information.
“We’ve always assumed people make unhealthy choices because that’s their preference or because they aren’t good at self-control,” said study co-author Nicolette Sullivan, a former postdoctoral associate at Duke, in the press release. “It turns out it’s not just a matter of self-control. Health is slower for your brain to estimate – it takes longer for you to include that information into the process of choosing between options.”
Some participants received a blurb about the importance of eating healthy, and they were less likely to choose an unhealthy snack. This suggests that the participants who took more time to consider their options led to choosing the healthier snack.
This could have implications on how we try to improve our food choices or influence other people’s choices.
“There may be ways to set up environments so people have an easier time making healthy choices,” says Huettel. “You want to make it easy for people to think about the healthfulness of foods, which would help nudge people toward better decisions.”
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