Entrée, main and dessert – it’s the correct order in which we order our meals. But how important is this order? And if this order is altered, could it affect the total number of calories we consume? According to a new study, apparently so. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, the study found that those who indulge in a higher-calorie dessert consume 30 per cent fewer calories than those who select a healthful dessert.
To conduct the study, researchers from The University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson wanted to answer one question: “would we observe different food choices and different magnitudes of caloric intake if an indulgent option was placed at the beginning, instead of at the end, of a food sequence?”
They specifically wanted to see if choosing a healthful or unhealthful dessert at the beginning of a meal would influence an individuals’ next food choices.
The scientists ran four experiments; one was conducted in a university cafeteria, and the other three were conducted using a mock food delivery website.
In a normal cafeteria setting, desserts are usually at the end of the line. In the cafeteria setting, the researchers put healthful (for example, an assortment of fresh fruit) and unhealthful desserts (a slice of lemon cheesecake) at the start of the cafeteria line, and as the first option on the food website.
By examining the participants’ food choices throughout the four studies, it became evident that those who chose a more indulgent dessert would go on to choose less calorific mains and sides. This also meant they consumed fewer calories overall.
The study found that on average, those who choose a high-calorie dessert consume 30 percent fewer calories than those who select a healthful dessert first.
“We believe diners who chose the indulgent dessert first picked healthier main and side dishes to make up for their high-calorie dessert,” says lead author Martin Reimann, assistant professor of marketing at UA.
“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 farther down the cafeteria line.”
However, the authors note a few limitations to their experiments. Firstly, they asked participants to choose between two polar opposite desserts (fruit versus cheesecake), whereas in the real world there would be an array of items that lie in between these options on the healthfulness scale.
They also note that three of the experiments were carried out online, which many not be relevant to the real world.
Nevertheless, the study’s results prove that if something as simple as changing the food order could help people eat less, it might be the ticket to significantly helping the current global obesity crisis.