The Zoomer Report: Vicarious Food Choices

Have you ever thought about getting a salad instead of french fries and ended up eating the fries anyway? New research shows that just thinking about doing the right thing can satisfy intentions to eat healthily, ironically making it easier to go ahead and order those fries after all.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that people were substantially more likely to choose the least-healthy option on a menu, such as a cheeseburger or ice cream, when the menu included a single more virtuous option, like a veggie burger or fruit.

They explain that because the healthy option is there, it somehow satisfies this healthy eating goal in them and then they felt liberated to…sort of…go crazy. Apparently it’s something called “vicarious goal fulfillment,” in which just having the opportunity to meet long-term objectives fulfills a person’s goal, no matter what they actually do. Furthermore, people with high levels of self-control were actually more likely to make indulgent choices when offered a healthy option than people who didn’t keep such a tight rein on themselves.

The bottom line: getting people to eat better requires more than just adding a healthy option or two to the menu at a fast food restaurant. The research suggests people should stay away from fast food joints altogether if they really want to eat right.

Libby ZnaimerLibby Znaimer, a prominent Canadian journalist specializing in business, politics, and lifestyle issues, is producer and host of The Zoomer Report, a special feature on topics of interest to baby boomers and the 50+. It covers everything from health and wealth to leisure and volunteerism, from the special vantage point of the generation that has changed society in its wake.

Ms. Znaimer is also Vice-President of News and Information for Classical 96.3FM and AM740. Her first book, “In Cancerland – Living Well Is The Best Revenge” – was published in October 2007 by Key Porter.

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