Highlighting When Menu Items Are Healthy Can Backfire

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Plenty of behavior-based tricks for getting people to eat better involve pushing them away from the less healthy options: withholding the less nutritious items until later in the meal, putting the junk food in some hard-to-reach cabinet, even tweaking vending machines to make you wait a little longer if you choose something super sugary.

All of which are ideas grounded in good sense – after all, to some extent, we’re all lazy creatures looking for some instant gratification. The problem with this approach, though, is that taking away the unhealthy options still doesn’t get you excited about what’s left. And according to a study recently published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine and highlighted by the New York Times, the best way to fix that problem may be to revise the way we think about the goal of healthy eating itself: instead of pushing us away from the bad stuff, pull us toward the good stuff.

For the study, researchers spent a month and a half observing thousands of diners in a college cafeteria; during that time, they recorded nearly 28,000 meals, around 8,000 of which involved customers getting one of the vegetable dishes involved in the experiment. The Times explained:

On different days, they could choose beets, corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, zucchini, carrots, or bok choy with mushrooms … Each day, the experimenters varied the names of the dishes to create a different gustatory impression. The basic “carrots” served one day became the healthful but somewhat stern “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing” the next, then mutated into the still health-conscious but more friendly “smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots,” and finally achieved metamorphosis as the restaurant-menu worthy “twisted citrus-glazed carrots.”

As you’d probably expect, the more decadently named dishes were more popular than either the basic ones or those with a more scolding label (“zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes,” for example, did better than either “cholesterol-free sweet potatoes” or plain old “sweet potatoes”). What’s a little more interesting, though, is that a name with a positive healthy spin (like “wholesome sweet potato superfood”) didn’t make a dish sound nearly as appealing — people chose the indulgent vegetables 35 percent more often than they chose the dish that cheerfully advertised the veggies’ health benefits.

“This is a seemingly simple study, just relabeling food,” lead study author Alia Crum, a psychology professor who heads up the university’s Mind and Body Lab, told the Times. “But it reflects a larger issue — that we’re trying to get people to eat healthier, but we’re going about it all wrong by trying to make people eat healthy by touting health claims.” Drawing more attention to something by playing up its nutritional value, it seems, can backfire; nutritious is nice, but what we really care about is tasty.

Highlighting When Menu Items Are Healthy Can Backfire