Nature's Bounty: License to Fill

There's something about seeing healthy menu options that frees us to make unhealthy choices.

By Daniel A. Marano, published September 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The psychology of real estate boils down to a very simple mantra: location, location, location; context is everything. The same seems to hold true for food, especially what and how much of it we eat.

For instance, we're all subject to what Brian Wansink calls "portion distortion." As the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University has demonstrated, we consume more food when it is served on a larger plate, in a bigger bowl, or in bulk packaging. And if it's labeled low-fat, we chow down even more—consuming, on average, 20 percent more calories than we would were it not so labeled.

Context is just as telling when it comes to that all-important piece of real estate known as the restaurant menu. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that the mere presence of healthy offerings on a menu or on display in a restaurant or even in a vending machine can often be enough to vicariously satisfy our long-term health and nutrition goals—and trick our brains into allowing us to make more indulgent food selections, ones we would not otherwise make.

And swallow this: Those most likely to make unhealthy food choices when facing healthier options are the people who normally exhibit the most self-control.

Call it menu mentality. At the heart of it lies a savory paradox: Fast food and chain restaurants have been adding healthier food alternatives to their menus, to placate consumers and a medical community alarmed about America's rising obesity rates. Sales at fast-food eateries like McDonald's are up—but not from the added healthy stuff like salads and grilled fare; chain restaurants are selling more burgers and fries than ever. Just because consumers say they would like to see healthier food alternatives on a menu doesn't mean they will ask for them.

Arming consumers with health information may be necessary, but it isn't sufficient. "There is a notion that if we all just had the full nutritional information on menu or food items, we'd choose rationally," observes Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University. "But that isn't so. There are too many unconscious environmental cues that prove to be too strong."

The research is creating a stir because it overturns some long-standing tenets of goal theory. Conventional wisdom holds that a goal—such as eating nutritiously—endures as a motivational force until it is actually fulfilled. But the new study suggests that just thinking about fulfilling a goal is enough to satisfy us cognitively—freeing us to move on to our next goal, which might well be to maximize enjoyment or to indulge in a food. The more goal-oriented a person is, the stronger the effect.

With menus getting healthier, the researchers sought to explore why the inclusion of healthy food seems to promote, not inhibit, poor consumer food selection, says co-author Beth Vallen, a marketing professor at Loyola College in Maryland.

In two of a total of four studies, the group explored whether the mere presence of a healthy food option would be enough to fulfill healthful-eating goals and then affect food choice. Subjects, university students all, did not see or eat actual food, but were given a forced choice from groups that included French fries, chicken nuggets, and baked potato, with or without the addition of a salad option. All items cost the same.

When there was no healthy option (the salad), subjects who measured low in self-control were more likely to select the least healthy options than subjects who rated high on self-control. No surprise there. But when the healthy option became available, those with the highest self-control were much more likely to select the least healthy of the offerings.

Ditto when the selections included a bacon burger and chicken and fish sandwiches and a veggie burger option was added. And when Oreo cookies were offered in versions from chocolate-covered to a new low-cal type, the presence of the relatively healthy option still encouraged subjects with the most willpower to select the most indulgent variety.

The study adds to a growing literature on just how complex our decision-making really is. It is the first study to suggest that an individual can experience goal fulfillment by simply having the opportunity to behave in line with a goal, and not necessarily doing the work to achieve it. This so-called "licensing effect" then permits a person to fulfill alternative goals, which in the case of food is often the desire to indulge.

When it comes to eating, self-control is a balancing act between short-term goals of indulging and long-term goals of being healthy. Once we feel that a goal is sufficiently fulfilled—however vicariously—we move on to the next goal in line, which explains why those who are most goal-oriented swing the farthest toward indulgence, maximizing satisfaction by picking the richest, most caloric items.

But the side dish of irony served up by the study is especially rich—changing the food offerings most impacts the choices of those assumed most likely to make healthy decisions. And the subjects who generally exhibit low self-control actually tend to choose better when offered the healthier options. But on the whole, twice as many subjects tended to choose the least healthy item when the choices included a healthy option, compared to when one was not available.

Walking into a fast food restaurant is "not a simple thing," says Fitzsimons. "The deck is stacked against you. The only safe bet is to avoid them. To be healthy, we have to consciously override our base impulses; our bodies and brains are still driven to maximize caloric intake. Those sugary and greasy foods are always going to appeal to us."

School Daze

Chain restaurants may be resistant to menu changes because food corporations are driven by profits. But schools? Parents and school boards have been pushing for the addition of healthy items and nutritional information to menus. But that, it's now clear, is not enough. "As consumer researchers, we're beginning to see that adding healthy items can have exactly the opposite effect of that intended—and create the license to indulge," says Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke University.

"Schools need not just to add a few healthy items to the cafeteria menu but to take draconian measures to get all the pizza and soft drinks and junk off of there," he insists. And some schools have begun to do so, he reports. Hey—if schools can't incorporate what we're learning about human nature, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Read Daniel A. Marano's PT blog: Thinking Food