Back in January McDonald’s took potshots at the superfood bandwagon. A TV ad opened with a trigger warning: “All vegetarians, foodies and gastronauts, kindly avert your eyes.” The camera moved in for a loving, lingering Big Mac closeup while the voice over assured us that McDonald’s will never pander to health food trendinistas with added quinoa, soy, Greek yogurt, or kale toppings. Fast forward a few months to May and the launch of McDonald’s new kale and egg white breakfast bowls. Has the company done an about-face? Is McDonald’s truly aiming to become a more “modern, progressive burger company” likes its CEO announced in this month’s worldwide webcast event? Or is McDonald’s using kale as a gateway drug to lure us on a path to fast food addiction?
Yes, gateway drug. A leafy green like kale can actually encourage junk food binging.
You know that junk food can be addictive— sugar, salt, and fat can light up the brain in the same way as heroin and cocaine. Food is actually considered a supernormal stimulus—it goes straight for the reward center in the ancient, instinct-driven region of our brains that evolutionary biologists call the reptilian brain. If we let our instincts take over we’d all be junk food junkies. A modern desire to self-regulate is the only thing standing between us and those animal urges.
Something else happens in our brains when kale gets in the way.
Healthy foods in close proximity to junk food can actually weaken resolve and derail self-regulation. Scientists call the phenomenon vicarious goal fulfillment. It happens when a person feels that a goal has been met if they have taken even a teeny, tiny step towards it. It’s like joining a gym you never get to, or buying an important book that sits on the shelf. Or the fleeting thought of ‘Hmm, I could have a salad.
Here’s how it works:
One day there’s a menu with just two items—a hamburger and french fries. Some diners order burgers, some order burgers and fries.
On another day the menu has the same burgers, the same fries, and now there’s a side salad. Some diners will stick with their original orders, some will add a salad, and some will switch from the burger-and-fries to the burger-and-salad. You’d expect to see fewer fries in total compared with the previous day, but it doesn’t work like that.
When a healthy option is added to a fast food menu, french fry orders rise- sometimes they actually triple. And it’s not just with salad vs. fries; the findings were the same whether it was Oreos or fried chicken, salad or veggie burgers.
Researchers confirm that this vicarious goal fulfillment happens when a person feels that a goal has been met if they have taken even a teeny, tiny step towards it. It’s like joining a gym you never get to, or buying an important book that sits on the shelf.
The fleeting thought of ‘Hmm, I could have a salad,’ is enough to satisfy dietary goals.
The mere presence of healthy options encourages us to make unhealthy choices.
It’s an ironic kind of indulgence, but there is a certain logic to it. The virtue conferred by the salad seems to give diners license to lower their guard. And the more self-disciplined an individual is, the more powerful the effect—the healthiest test subjects were actually the most likely to add fries from the second menu.
McDonald’s kale bowls–gateway drug or healthy fast food?
It’s possible that the new menu items reflect the company’s noblest intentions. It’s also possible that they’ve read the same studies that we have.