Eat More Healthily, Start with Dessert!
Choosing a high-calorie food first can help to choose healthier foods last
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In order to eat healthily, experts recommend following a balanced diet, which can become a real feat in our daily lives, especially when we eat out. Who can resist a mouth-watering meat lasagna or a scrumptious chocolate cake?

The good news is that choosing these high-calorie foods first can contribute to the subsequent selection of healthier foods, in any all-you-can-eat buffet or even in their digital replica – food delivery apps. Eating healthily might not depend on a particular diet, but simply on changing the presentation order of the courses.

In a recent study, conducted together with our colleagues David Flores, Tecnológico de Monterrey, and Martin Reimann, University of Arizona, we demonstrated that when a high-calorie dish is chosen for the first course, healthier dishes will be preferred for the following courses, thereby reducing the total calorie intake.

In contrast, if we limit ourselves and choose a healthy dish first, we will probably indulge afterwards and choose less healthy options. This principle can be explained because choosing a healthy food type makes us feel that “we’ve been good” and deserve to be rewarded with more indulgent options.

The order of the factors does change the product

In the study, “If I Indulge First, I Will Eat Less Overall”(Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2019) we validated our hypothesis: choosing a healthy dish first – such as a green salad or fresh fruit – makes us feel as though we are making progress towards our healthy-eating goal, leading us to choose higher-calorie foods afterwards; while selecting a less-healthy option first – such as a cheesecake dessert – shows us that we have not advanced in our healthy-eating goal, and, therefore, are less likely to eat too much in the subsequent dishes we choose.

The key lies in the presentation order. Other studies have shown the importance of the first item in a sequence– such as a lunch buffet—where the options are presented visually and the time to assess and make decisions is limited. This has been called the primacy effect. In sequential decisions, the first item has a greater influence on subsequent decisions since it is more easily recalled and leaves a stronger impression on the mind.

Application

Strategies based on food presentation order can help restaurants and food suppliers to respond to concerns about fostering healthier eating, without limiting consumers’ options. With obesity rates tripling since 1975, according to the World Health Organization, being creative in generating innovations in this sector is of utmost importance. Our research can be useful for buffet restaurants or web applications and food delivery services.