According to new research, our brains are often fooled by restaurants into thinking that adding healthy toppings to an unhealthy dish actually makes it less calorie laden.
In a Forbes study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, participants were asked to estimate the calorie count of meals with a healthy base, like salad, and those with an unhealthy base, like cake.
When a topping of fruit was added to a piece of cake, participants’ calorie count prediction was a whopping 16per cent lower than it was without the topping.
This is because, according to Forbes, ’our brains apparently think that a healthy item somehow subtracts calories when added to something fattening’.
Indeed, participants were much more likely to underestimate the calorie content of an unhealthy food, especially when it was topped with something healthy.
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When it came to estimating the number of calories in a healthy dish, however, participants were more or less accurate, whether the dishes’ toppings were healthy or unhealthy.
What’s more this tendency may translate to food contents, as well as toppings.
A calorific carrot cake, for example, may be viewed as ‘healthier’ than a chocolate cake, since it contains a vegetable, even if it has twice the carbohydrates and grams of fat.
The study also found that because of this tendency, consumers are more likely to eat more of an unhealthy food if it has a healthy topping.
In 2009, Dietary Decoys published a similar study about how our brains react to certain foods on a menu.
Researchers gave college students menus for two restaurants – one that offered French fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato, and the other with the same options, plus salad.
33per cent of students selecting from the menu that included salad opted for french fries, which are widely perceived as the most unhealthy option.
By contrast, just ten percent of the other group chose French fries.
Keith Wilcox, one of the authors of the paper, explained: ‘When you consider the healthy option, you say, well, I could have that option. That lowers your guard, leading to self-indulgent behavior.’