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It's Not Your Fault — Junk Food is Twice as Distracting as Healthy Food

But there's hope. A study found that after a few bites of candy, participants found junk food to be no more interesting than kale.
Image: A man carries a shopping basket in a grocery store
If you choose to indulge in something tempting, a little of it can go a long way, a new study says.Dan Dalton / Getty Images - Caiaimage

All that Halloween candy still lingering in your office or kitchen means it’s just the beginning of sweets season: candy, cake, pie and assorted sugary Holiday sundry is bound to beckon at us from every corner for the next couple of months. And no wonder it’s so hard for us to resist; a recent Johns Hopkins University study, published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, found that images of junk food are almost twice as likely to tempt you as health food.

But what’s compelling about this study is that it proves satisfying those cravings aren’t always…well… satisfying. Believe it or not, after a few bites of candy, study participants found junk food to be no more interesting than kale — which also proves that food shopping hungry may cause you to choose less healthy options than if you’d indulged in a little snack beforehand.

Corbin A. Cunningham, distinguished Science of Learning fellow in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, at Johns Hopkins University, asked a group of participants to complete a complicated computer task and find the answers as quickly as possible. While they performed the task, pictures of high-fat, high-calorie foods, healthy foods, and miscellaneous inedible items flashed in the periphery of the screen for all of 125 milliseconds — too fast for people to comprehend exactly what they saw. As it turns out, the pictures were all distracting, but participants found the images of junk food twice as distracting as the healthy food and inedible items.

For the next phase, the researchers recreated the experiment, but new participants ate two fun-sized candy bars before beginning. Much to their surprise, the high-fat, high-calorie food images were suddenly no more distracting than healthy foods or other pictures.

Cunningham says one reason unhealthy foods may seem more tempting to people than healthy foods is the innate biological desire to consume high calorie or “energy-dense” foods because, quite simply, they taste better.

Might the reason also have to do with that adage we always want what we can't (or shouldn't) have? The answer is, kind of.

“While it is hard to tell, I think some of the rewarding nature of high calorie foods might be that we know we should only occasionally indulge in them. Thus, they become more ‘rewarding’ than foods that we could eat as much as we want,” Cunningham explains.

With all the temptations of the holidays upon us, how can we mine this knowledge to resist the temptation of overeating junk around the holidays?

Cunningham says, “It’s important not only during the holidays but also generally to always eat in moderation. But if you are choosing to indulge in something tempting, a little of it can go a long way.”

So before you go food shopping, go ahead and treat yourself to one of those leftover Halloween candy bars, or that bite of pie. You’re likely to fill your basket with healthier food, and do your diet less damage in the long run.


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