A recent Psychology Today article explores the tricks our brains play while trying to make healthy food choices. "There's something about seeing healthy menu options that frees us to make unhealthy choices," writes the author.
Brian Wansink, Director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, calls one phenomenon "portion distortion." We eat more food when it is served on a larger plate, in a bigger bowl, or in bulk packaging. If items are labeled "low-fat," we eat, on average, 20 percent more calories than we would otherwise.
But that's not the end of the story. Just looking at healthy alternatives on a fast food menu can free us to make unhealthy choices.
The article goes on: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."