You know by now that food can be addictive.
Studies have even shown that certain foods can light up the same region of the brain as heroin and cocaine. We’re told to stay away from things like chips and cookies because they’re loaded with the kinds of processed and refined carbohydrates that trigger our junk-food cravings. But other studies show that choosing healthy foods—leafy greens, fruits, and salads—can promote something called ‘vicarious goal fulfillment’ that convinces us to eat even more junk.
Picture two menus.
One menu offers burgers and fries. Some people will choose a burger only; some add fries to their burger orders.
The other menu has the same burgers, same fries, but it also offers a side salad. It seems logical that there are still some burger-only orders; some of the burger-only folks will now add a salad; some of the burger-with-fries will stick with fries; and some will switch from fries to a salad. You’d figure that the orders would go up by a few salads and down by a few fries.
It doesn’t work like that.
When a salad option is added, french fry orders actually increase. In fact three times as many diners will go for the fries when a salad is on the menu. Apparently the mere presence of healthy options encourages us to make unhealthy choices. 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.
It’s an ironic kind of indulgence.
There is a certain logic to it. The researchers contend that the virtue conferred by the salad gave 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.
Kale as a gateway drug?
I’ll bet it’s news to you. But you can bet it’s not to the fast food industry.