Feeling guilty when it comes to ordering dessert at the restaurant? You might want to rethink your whole eating out strategy because a new study claims that eating dessert FIRST could lead you to pick a healthier main meal and consume fewer calories overall.
Published by the American Psychological Association, the research involved an experiment that was conducted over four days in the cafeteria of a university in Mexico.
Researchers placed either a healthy or less healthy dessert (fresh fruit vs. lemon cheesecake) at the beginning or end of the cafeteria line.
There were also healthy and less healthy main and side dishes (e.g. grilled chicken fajitas and a small salad, or fried fish and French fries).
When people in the line picked the cheesecake first, they then chose lower-calorie main or side dishes, and in turn consumed fewer calories overall than those who chose the fresh fruit dessert. But those effects weren’t found when either dessert was placed at the end of the food line.
The researchers interviewed 134 of those dining in the cafeteria about healthy eating after they had passed through the line. People’s food choices were surreptitiously recorded during the interviews and the amount of leftover food was also noted after the meals to estimate the total calories consumed.
The study found that people who chose the indulgent dessert first consumed an average of 30 per cent fewer calories (including the dessert) than those who picked the healthier dessert first.
Those who chose the cheesecake first were also twice as likely to order the lighter main dish than those who picked the cheesecake at the end of the line.
“We believe diners who chose the indulgent dessert first then picked healthier main and side dishes to make up for their high-calorie dessert,” explained Martin Reimann, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, who was one of the lead study authors.
“Diners who picked the healthier dessert may have thought they already had done a good deed for their bodies so they deserved higher-calorie food further down the cafeteria line.”
— American Psychological Association (@APA) February 7, 2019
What about ordering food online?
With the rise of online food delivery services, some additional online experiments were conducted by the researchers using the same design as the cafeteria experiment, but with a mock food delivery website. The dessert choices were fruit salad or chocolate cake.
In the first experiment, 160 participants were asked how hungry they were and how much they thought they would eat of each food item they chose, in order to estimate the overall calorie consumption.
The findings were similar to the cafeteria study, with significantly fewer calories estimated for entire meals when participants chose the chocolate cake first instead of the fruit salad.
However, when participants were distracted, those who chose the indulgent dessert first were more likely to keep making unhealthy choices by picking high-calorie main and side dishes.
In another online study with 180 participants, the findings were similar when a healthy or less healthy main dish was presented first on the food delivery website menu instead of a dessert.
“People should be aware that their initial food choices and their mindset may affect the overall healthiness of their meals,” Mr Reimann said.
The study noted: “Restaurants, cafeterias and food delivery websites could encourage healthy eating through the placement of healthy or less healthy foods, and diners might eat less at all-you-can-eat buffets if indulgent desserts were placed at the front of the buffet line.”
So, next time you’re eating out, if you can’t say no to dessert, perhaps a cheeky chocolate brownie first might help you cut down on calories overall.