Rationalization and the “health aura”
I’ve been sitting on this link for a bit, but I’m shaking out because it’s interesting—researchers found that putting a salad on a menu make people more, not less, likely to order fries. The working theory is that the mere presence of a salad gives people permission to eat the less healthy food (which is still technically a vegetable, which I suspect is their rationale, and has been mine before). From the NY Times coverage:
“When you consider the healthy option, you say, well, I could have that option,” said Keith Wilcox, a doctoral candidate at Baruch College who is one of the paper’s four authors. “That lowers your guard, leading to self-indulgent behavior.”
This research is going into consumer marketing publications, which should alarm anyone, since obviously the takeaway message for fast food places is to put more salads on their menu, with the realization they don’t have to pony that much for the lettuce because they’ll be moving that many more fries. This study found that students who saw the salad on the menu were three times as likely to order fries, a number which should make anyone from McDonald’s or Burger King perk right up. Of course, a lot of these places already knew this. I was reading blogs and books last night while idly looking over at the basketball game on TV, and I noticed that most of the fast food ads showed a lot more healthy food on the screen than you could get in the restaurant. The idea is clearly to make people think of their restaurants as a place where you get balanced meals instead of just junk food. And you may go in intending to get some fresh vegetables, but by the time you order, most people will cave and get the fries. And perhaps they’ll be more likely to with a salad on the menu.
This perked up my interest, because the standard diet (not dieting, which is a temporary restriction that people take on to lose weight at a rapid pace, and rarely works to keep the weight off, because they just return to old eating habits when they go back) advice from the nutritional experts has been simple in theory, if difficult in practice: complex carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and fruit, some protein (but less than most people think), restrict your exposure to HCF and refined sugar to “only on rare occasions, like when it’s a wedding and there’s cake”, and don’t drink your calories. Diabetics obviously have a different diet, but this is standard for most everyone else. But the calorie-drinking thing is, probably because the cola industry is so invested in it, a bit contentious. While most research shows that calories you drink don’t register against your hunger and are therefore empty in every sense of the word, there was also a study that came out that was widely publicized (because it was a combination of being counter intuitive and what people want to hear—a surefire media sensation) that said that people who switch to diet sodas often gain weight.
I’ve heard some unlikely theories as to why this must be so, the most popular being that diet sodas don’t satisfy, so you eat more to compensate. Unfortunately, this is true of calorie-heavy drinks, which is why they say don’t drink your calories. The researchers didn’t rule out that sodas may prompt hunger, but while that’s a more pleasing theory, the psychological one makes more sense.
But why would diet soda make some people gain weight? There are only theories at this point but it may be as simple as people consciously eating more because they think they can.
Khristianne Corro says, “If I’m having one of those pig out days, then yeah, I figure maybe it’ll balance it out a little bit.”
And Tomczak says, “I’m drinking the diet soda and you know let me have that hamburger and fries, instead of just the hamburger alone.”
This research that shows that making people just think about a salad makes them more likely to order fries, because they adopt that “health aura”. Imagine what actually drinking the diet soda does. Obviously, there needs to be more research, but this particular study points to the rationalization model as the most likely reason for the effect. What’s interesting is that if they do more research on this, they’ll probably learn a lot about rationalization alongside eating habits.
This is all very interesting, but the question is, what do we do about it? On an individual level, the sad truth is that eating in more helps tremendously, especially if you plan your meals, shop when you’re not hungry (and therefore when you’re less tempted by fat-and-sugar-heavy foods), and make an effort to follow the nutritional guidelines. But individual solutions only do so much, as I’m sure you all know. I tend to think stricter labeling laws should apply in restaurants—if your restaurant takes in over X amount of revenue per year, you should be required to prominently display the calorie information (and perhaps a couple of other relevant items, like fiber and whether there’s refined sugar or HCFs in the item) next to the item itself on the menu. Putting it in a brochure that someone has to work to get won’t do, because few people are willing to puncture their rationalizations to look it up. (I say this as someone who is guilty as hell of this.) This will have a twofold benefit. First of all, the numbers could discourage people from doing things like thinking, “I’m having a Diet Coke, so I can order the large fries.” Second of all, it could drive business to smaller competitors. Let’s face it—people don’t usually enjoy knowing how many calories they’re consuming, and many will go out of their way not to know. Which means that small, local restaurants who aren’t hit by the law could benefit by taking all the people who aren’t in the mood to go to Applebee’s and find out how much they’re actually eating.