If you are like most people, when you are on a diet, the last thing you would consider is starting a meal by selecting a high calorie way of ending it, notwithstanding the fact that it is usually within the throes of self-deprivation that fattening food looks most appealing. But what if in the buffet line, you actually put that slice of cake on your tray before you selected your entrée? Can the counterintuitive move of choosing an indulgent selection first really help you lose weight? Believe it or not, new research suggests the answer might be yes.
Source: Image by engin akyurt from Pixabay
The Order of Ordering
Most meals do not consist of isolated selections. They involve several items. Entrée, side dish, beverage, dessert. When making these selections, it turns out that order is as important as what you order.
David Flores et al. (2019), in a series of experiments, found that both indulgence and food presentation order interact to impact consumption.[i]They found that when making meal selections in a sequential order, such as in a buffet line or when ordering on a website, people tend to be influenced by the item they spot first. The balance of their order tends to be made on the basis of their first selection—which consequently, appears to be very important.
In their first experiment, which took place in a cafeteria, they found that when an indulgent item was selected first, diners were more likely to select lower calorie selections afterwards. The result? They actually consumed less calories overall. This phenomenon also operated when ordering food from a website.
When the first item selected was healthy, in contrast, the choices that followed were more likely to be high-calorie. Consequently, despite the initial sensible choice, the overall calorie count was higher than had the diner started by indulging.
What were the calorie savings? The meal with the indulgent dessert and healthy main course and side were much lower than the healthy dessert and indulgent main course—496 calories compared to 865.[ii]
License to Live it Up
Study co-author Martin Reimann, an assistant professor of marketing and cognitive science at the University of Arizona, explained the phenomena to Time magazine, “If we choose something healthy first, then this gives us a license to choose something bigger later.”[iii] He adds that conversely, when you choose dessert first, this license is “already expired.” He explains that choosing a high calorie item first appears to “steer people to put the foot on the brake a little” as they make the rest of their meal selections.
What types of desserts were tested in the study and where were they placed? Over the course of four days, either fresh fruit or lemon cheesecake were placed at the beginning of the cafeteria line or at the end. Cafeteria offerings included both healthy and less healthy main dishes and sides such as grilled chicken fajitas and a small salad, or fried fish and chips.[iv]
This study may be good news for dessert lovers. But here is a word of caution: don´t think too intensely about this phenomenon (or anything else) when you are actually in the buffet line. Because under an experimental condition of high cognitive load, Flores et al. found that the effect was reversed—an indulgent first selection was likely to be followed with other high calorie selections.
High Calorie But Healthy?
Many people justify hybrid menu selections by focusing on the redeeming value of their order. It is easier to justify a dish that pairs healthy items with high calorie add-ons than explaining away a plate of pancakes with butter and syrup. What are some examples of hybrid menu selections? Since we are talking about desserts here, Flores et al. give the example of fresh strawberries with whipped cream, but we can think of many others. Baked apple pie. Chocolate covered raisins. A banana split (well, maybe that is over the line).
Whatever the combination, the authors recognize that with combo meals, classification is an issue deserving of further research. They also recognize that when diners weigh the calories of food item “virtues” and “vices,” they may view a dish that mixes healthy and indulgent ingredients as healthy—which encourages increased indulgence.