It almost sounds like common sense – you’re standing at a train station, craving a chocolate bar, with only an expensive vending machine keeping you company on the platform. You tell yourself you shouldn’t usually pay twice the price for something unhealthy when you get some cheap fruit from your supermarket near your home, but you quickly surrender to your taste buds anyway.
New research appearing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has identified this biological response as a key obstacle to those seeking a healthy diet.
“Our results indicate that even if people strive to eat healthier, craving could overshadow the importance of health by boosting the value of tempting, unhealthy foods relative to healthier options,” explains Anna Konova, the paper’s lead author. “Craving, which is pervasive in daily life, may nudge our choices in very specific ways that help us acquire those things that made us feel good in the past–even if those things may not be consistent with our current health goals.”
The series of experiments asked a series of questions to people after they had already developed a craving for the unhealthy snack, and found people were more likely to pay more for the exact same item if they had just seen it and asked to think about specific memories of eating the product. Incredibly, it didn’t seem to matter if the subjects were hungry or not – simply if they had the craving or not.
“In other words, craving Snickers does not make you hungrier; it makes you desire Snickers specifically,” explains Louie, a co-author on the paper.
Although the affect is also seen in healthy food options, it was strongest in cravings associated with items that were high calorie, or with high fat or sugar content.
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