Researchers explain why the urge to eat a donut is mightier than the urge to eat an apple — even though the apple is the more healthful option.
Aukje Verhoeven, Sanne de Wit, and Poppy Watson, all psychologists at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, conducted the research.
Their findings were published in the journal Appetite.
The consumption of unhealthful foods is on the rise around the world, which is contributing to the more than 1.9 billion adults who are overweight globally.
Among children in the United States, more than 27 percent of calories each day come from snacks, including salted snacks, candy, desserts, and sweetened beverages. This could have hazardous consequences for their health.
Learned cues affect food choices
Government initiatives have focused on making people more aware of the adverse effects of eating unhealthfully. However, most people fail to adhere to the recommended food guidelines, and eating behaviors often remain unchanged.
Though it is not clear why informational interventions do not work, evidence suggests that food-related stimuli in the environment may play a role in triggering unhealthful eating habits.
“Health warnings often make people want to choose healthier food products, yet many still end up picking unhealthy food products,” explains Verhoeven. “We suspected this might partly be due to the fact that people learn to associate specific cues in their environment with certain food choices.”
For example, seeing a large “M” sign in the environment has been linked to reward, such as eating a cheeseburger, which then prompts a craving and could trigger a trip to the restaurant.
These learned associations between cues and outcomes have a significant effect on the foods that people choose to consume.
“Unhealthy choices are therefore automatically activated by learned associations, making health warnings, which focus on conscious choices, ineffective,” Verhoeven adds.
Warnings ineffective in the presence of cues
Verhoeven and team aimed to investigate whether the presence of food-related stimuli and the behaviors they provoke are the reason why health warnings have a limited effect on eating choices.
The participants learned to press keys for two food rewards and learned associations between the stimuli and the reward. Information was displayed on the health risks of one of the two rewards, then participants had to choose between the two food options.