Category: Eating

Simply Changing The Order Of Fast Food Menus Nudges Customers Towards Healthier Soft Drink Choices

Fast food and unhealthy eating concept - close up of fast food snacks and cold drink on yellow background

By guest blogger Freddy Parker

Fast food chains are not exactly renowned for encouraging healthy eating. But in a new study a team of psychologists, eager to turn that assumption on its head, chose McDonald’s as their target for a somewhat unconventional, psychologically-informed health intervention. Writing in Psychology & Marketing, the researchers report successfully “nudging” a group of Coca-Cola-guzzling customers into opting for its sugar-free counterpart, Coke Zero — simply by changing the order of options on the menu.

Continue reading “Simply Changing The Order Of Fast Food Menus Nudges Customers Towards Healthier Soft Drink Choices”

Episode 14: Psychological Tricks To Make Your Cooking Taste Better

GettyImages-694982996.jpgThis is Episode 14 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.

Can psychology help your cooking taste better? Our presenter Ginny Smith hears about the importance of food presentation, pairing and sequencing, and how our perception of food is a multi-sensory experience. She and her friends conduct a taste test using “sonic seasonings” that you can also try at home.

Our guests, in order of appearance, are: Professor Debra Zellner at MontClaire State University and Professor Charles Spence at Oxford University.

Background resources for this episode:

Episode credits: Presented and produced by Ginny Smith. Mixing Jeff Knowler. PsychCrunch theme music Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Art work Tim Grimshaw.

Check out this episode!

Subscribe and download via iTunes.
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Past episodes:

Episode one: Dating and Attraction
Episode two: Breaking Bad Habits
Episode three: How to Win an Argument
Episode four: The Psychology of Gift Giving
Episode five: How To Learn a New Language
Episode six: How To Be Sarcastic 😉
Episode seven: Use Psychology To Compete Like an Olympian.
Episode eight: Can We Trust Psychological Studies?
Episode nine: How To Get The Best From Your Team
Episode ten: How To Stop Procrastinating
Episode eleven: How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Episode twelve: How to Be Funnier
Episode thirteen: How to Study and Learn More Effectively

PsychCrunch is sponsored by Routledge Psychology.

PsychCrunch Banner April 16

Routledge interviewed PsychCrunch presenter Christian Jarrett about the aims of the podcast and engaging with the public about psychology research.

Can attachment theory help explain the relationship some people have with their “anorexia voice”?

GettyImages-507801456.jpgBy Alex Fradera

A new paper in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice argues that the relationship a person has with their eating disorder is shaped by that person’s understanding of what meaningful relationships should look like – and, in turn, this can have important consequences for the severity of their disorder.

In particular, Emma Forsén Mantilla and her team from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden wanted to better understand eating disorders through “attachment theory”. This is the idea that relationships with primary caregivers become scripts that we lean on to tell us how relationships “work”. 

Continue reading “Can attachment theory help explain the relationship some people have with their “anorexia voice”?”

Whether you snack or not is more about the presence of temptation than your willpower

giphy1By Christian Jarrett

When you’re in the coffee shop and you watch your hand pick up the muffin and place it on your tray, how much of this was down to the situation, and how much to do with your (lack of) willpower or your long-term intentions? A new study in the British Journal of Health Psychology compared these influences and found that momentary cues, such as seeing someone else snacking, were more strongly associated with how much people snacked than their own baseline psychological traits and intentions.

Continue reading “Whether you snack or not is more about the presence of temptation than your willpower”

The first study to see if fussy-eating children grow into fussy-eating adults

GettyImages-599487120.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Fussy eating – also referred to as “selective eating” in scholarly research – is incredibly common among children, with upper estimates placing the prevalence at 50 per cent. Despite this, many parents understandably fret when their kids avoid a lot of foods, won’t try new things and/or will only eat certain meals. They worry whether their child is getting enough vitamins and if their child’s fussiness is some kind of precursor to later more serious eating problems.

A new, small study in Eating Behaviors is the first to document how fussy eating develops in the same individuals over time into early adulthood and may provide a crumb (sorry) of comfort for anxious parents. It’s true that 60 per cent of fussy eating children in the study were also fussy eaters at age 23, but fussy eating young adults were no more likely to report signs of eating disorder than their non-fussy peers.

Continue reading “The first study to see if fussy-eating children grow into fussy-eating adults”

Teens reject junk food when healthy eating is framed as rebellion

Fit young woman fighting off fast foodBy guest blogger Julia Gottwald

Crisps, coke, and chocolate bars. What might be a special treat for some of us, is now a multi-billion pound industry and a staple of many people’s diets. Advertising campaigns from the snack food companies, often starring sports stars, send the message that we can offset any adverse effects of consuming their products simply by getting more physical exercise. But you can’t really “run off” a burger – recent studies show a lack of exercise is not to blame for rising obesity rates, bad diets are the real driver.

Interventions to help reduce junk food consumption are especially important for children and adolescents – prevention is better than cure in this context because obesity is so difficult to treat. Unfortunately, while health education in the classroom has shown some success among young children, adolescents have been notoriously hard to reach.

But now a large-scale study published in PNAS has tried an innovative approach to change teenagers’ attitudes towards healthy eating, and the results are promising. The researchers, led by Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that previous interventions have probably been unsuccessful because of a major flaw: they focused on a future, healthier you and assumed that this would be enough motivation for adolescents. In contrast, the new intervention cleverly exploits teenagers’ instinct for rebelliousness and autonomy, and the value they place on social justice. Continue reading “Teens reject junk food when healthy eating is framed as rebellion”

By age three, girls already show a preference for thin people

These days it’s hard to avoid the message that thin is best. From advertising billboards to the Oscar red carpet, we are inundated with images of successful ultra-thin women.

Past research has already shown that this ideal is filtering through to our children, even preschoolers. But before now, there has been little study of just how early pro-thin bias (and prejudice against fat people) appears, and how it develops with age.

Jennifer Harriger tested 102 girls from the South Western US, aged between three and five. She first asked the girls to consider 12 adjectives (six positive and six negative, including nice, smart, mean stupid) and to allocate each one to whichever of three female figures they felt the adjective was most suited. The precise wording was “Point to the girl that you think is/has …”. Crucially, one of the female figures was very thin, one was very fat, and the other average, with no other differences between them. Three-year-olds, four-year-olds and five-year-olds all tended to allocate more negative adjectives to the fat figure and more positive adjectives to the thin figure.

Another test involved the children looking at nine figures (three fat, three average and three thin) and choosing their first three preferences for playmates, and finally to choose their best friend from the selection. Children at all ages tended to choose a thin figure for their first choice, a thin or average for the second choice, with no bias in their third choice. Best friend choices tended to be thin.

Age differences were few, but there was some evidence that three-year-olds were showing more of a bias for thinness, as opposed to a bias against fat people, with fat prejudice increasing with age. For example, only the youngest girls allocated more negative adjectives to average and fat figures than to the thin figures, consistent with their believing “thin is good” rather than “fat is bad”.

The research needs to be replicated in other countries, with boys, and with even younger children. Harriger also noted that it would be interesting to look at the influence of children’s own weight and the beliefs of their parents, siblings and peers. For now, she said her findings illustrated “an increasing preference for thinness and intolerance for fatness in preschool age girls …” and that the promotion of size acceptance “must begin even earlier than we once believed.”


Harriger, J. (2014). Age Differences in Body Size Stereotyping in a Sample of Preschool Girls Eating Disorders, 23 (2), 177-190 DOI: 10.1080/10640266.2014.964610

further reading
Video protects girls from the negative effects of looking at ultra-thin models
Five-year-old girls who want to be thin
Nine-month-olds prefer looking at unattractive (read: normal) male bodies
How do women and girls feel when they see sexualised or sporty images of female athletes?
Magazine reports on eating disorders are superficial and misleading

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Does picturing yourself eating fruit increase your fruit intake?

Health experts say we aren’t eating enough fruit. Perhaps psychology can help. Try this. Picture yourself eating a portion of fruit tomorrow – an apple, say, or a couple of plums. Take your time. Focus on the colours, the consistency, the flavour. Visualise where you are at the time, and what you are doing.

Do you think this simple imagery task will have increased the likelihood you will eat fruit tomorrow? A new study led by Catherine Adams attempted to find out. Over two hundred volunteers were split into three groups. One performed the fruit imagery task, another group did the same thing but for a biscuit bar of their choice (examples they were given included flapjacks, Kellogg’s Elevenses and Jaffa Cake bars), and a final group did not perform an imagery task.

Straight after, the participants answered questions about their food preferences, future consumption intentions, and they were offered a reward from a basket of fruits and biscuit bars. Two days later they were also asked by email whether they had any eaten fruit or a biscuit bar the day before (35 per cent of them answered this).

Once the researchers controlled for background factors (such as the possibility there were more fruit lovers in one condition or the other), they found that the fruit imagery task made no difference to participants’ intentions to eat fruit, no difference to their choice of fruit as a reward, nor their consumption of fruit the next day, as compared with the control group who didn’t perform the imagery. For the biscuit bar group, the imagery task increased their intentions to eat biscuit bars in the future, but didn’t actually alter their consumption (as compared against the no-imagery control group).

“These effects suggest different effects for different visualised behaviours,” the researchers said. “Further investigation is needed before recommending visualisation for increasing fruit consumption.”

As the researchers’ acknowledged, there are some issues with the study that mean caution is needed in interpreting the results. For instance, just one brief imagery session may well be inadequate. Also, other research suggests imagery works best when combined with other strategies, such as “if-then” implementation plans (e.g. If I am hungry, then I will snack on some fruit). The response rate to the follow-up email was also disappointing, and bear in mind that participants may have felt the food they chose immediately after the imagery was a form of reward, and therefore this behaviour may not reflect their usual eating choices. These issues show how difficult health behaviour research can be.


Adams C, Rennie L, Uskul AK, and Appleton KM (2013). Visualising future behaviour: Effects for snacking on biscuit bars, but no effects for snacking on fruit. Journal of health psychology PMID: 24217063

–Further reading–
The Digest guide to willpower
Less is more when it comes to beating bad habits
If-then plans help protect us from the ‘to hell with it’ effect
The mindbus technique for resisting chocolate – should we climb aboard?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

The mindbus technique for resisting chocolate – should we climb aboard?

Imagine you are the driver & your chocolate cravings are unruly passengers

If someone gave you a bag of 14 chocolates to carry around for five days, would you be able to resist eating them and any other chocolate? That was the challenge faced by 135 undergrads in a new study that compared the effectiveness of two different “mindfulness” resistance techniques.

Kim Jenkins and Katy Tapper taught 45 of their participants “cognitive defusion”, the essence being that “you are not your thoughts”. The students were told to imagine that they are the driver of a mindbus and any difficult thoughts about chocolate are to be seen as awkward passengers. The students chose a specific method for dealing with these difficult thoughts/passengers and practised it for five minutes – either describing them, letting them know who is in charge, making them talk with a different accent, or singing what they are saying.

Another group of students were taught an acceptance technique known as “urge surfing”. They were instructed to ride the wave of their chocolate cravings, rather than to sink them or give in to them. A final group of students acted as controls and were taught a relaxation technique.

As well as trying to resist the bag of chocolates, the students in all conditions were asked to avoid eating any other chocolate as far as possible, and to keep a diary of any chocolate they did eat over the five days.

The key finding is that the mindbus group ate fewer chocolates from their bag as compared with students in the control group. By contrast, the urge surfing group ate just as many of their chocolates as the controls. Diary records showed the differences between groups in their other chocolate consumption were not statistically significant, although there was a trend for the mindbus group to eat less (13g vs. 52g in the urge surfing group and 44g in the control condition). Another way of describing the results is to say that 27 per cent of the mindbus group ate some chocolate over the five-day period, compared with 45 per cent of the urge surfers and 45 per cent of controls.

A habits questionnaire suggested the mindbus technique was more effective because it reduced the students’ mindless, automatic consumption of chocolate more than the other interventions. Jenkins and Tapper said their results show the mindbus “cognitive defusion” technique is a “promising brief intervention strategy” for boosting self-control over an extended time period.

The serious chocaholics among you may not be so convinced. Although the students were recruited on the basis that they wanted to reduce their chocolate consumption, they appeared to show saintly levels of abstinence. On average, even the control group participants ate just 0.69 chocolates from their bag over the five day period (compared with an average of 0.02 chocolates in the mindbus condition; 0.27 in the urge surfing condition). The controls’ other chocolate consumption amounted to the equivalent of little more than four individual chocolates over five days. You’ve got to wonder – how serious were these participants about chocolate and just how tasty were the chocolates in that bag*?

Another thing – the researchers included a measure of “behavioural rebound”. After the students returned to the lab on day five, they were presented with a bowl of chocolates and invited to eat as many as they liked. The groups didn’t differ in the amount of chocolates they consumed, which the researchers interpreted as a good sign – after all, the mindbus group hadn’t compensated for their restricted intake during the week. But hang on, they also showed no evidence of greater resistance to the chocolate. Sounds to me like the passengers had taken over the bus.


Jenkins, K., and Tapper, K. (2013). Resisting chocolate temptation using a brief mindfulness strategy. British Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjhp.12050

*Co-author Katy Tapper got in touch on Twitter to tell us: “The chocolates were very tempting Cadbury’s Celebrations!”

–Further reading–
Video of the mindbus technique. 
Self-licensing: when you indulge through reason, not lack of willpower
Good news and bad for a popular willpower-enhancing strategy
The first detailed study of daily temptation and resistance

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Dieters eat just as much as others but suffer more guilt

People who self-identify as dieters are an unhappy bunch on the whole. They usually score high on measures of depression and anxiety and low on self-esteem. A new study provides a clue as to why. Jessie de Witt Huberts and her colleagues tested three groups of female students and found the “restrained eaters” (they reported dieting more often and being conscious of their food intake) ate just as much as other students. They also experienced a lot more guilt, especially in relation to eating. In essence, these are people who seem to constantly set themselves up for failure, while also robbing themselves of the pleasures of eating. “Despite their good intentions,” the researchers said, “restraint eaters seem to gain nothing and lose twice.”

The research took place across three studies, all following a similar procedure. Dozens of female undergrads were invited to a lab to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting session for a supermarket chain. They were left alone for ten minutes to sample high and low calorie food, like chips and apple slices. Then they were asked questions about their emotions, including their guilt, and about their attitudes towards food, including how much they diet and how often they worry about what they’re eating.

Checking the food afterwards, the researchers found that the restrained eaters – those who dieted often and who fretted about their consumption – had eaten just as much as the other participants, including just as much high-calorie food. But crucially, they felt more guilty afterwards, especially in relation to their recent indulgence.

This study doesn’t prove that being a restrained eater causes increased guilt. It’s possible there’s one or more other factors that cause a person to watch what they eat and to experience more guilt. One could also argue that the set-up was a little unfair on the restrained eaters – they’d been asked to taste the food, after all; perhaps they do exert more control over their intake in everyday life.

Nonetheless, the results are certainly intriguing, and help explain why restrained eaters tend to experience psychological problems and why they tend to develop problematic eating habits. In effect, it appears these people are locked into a vicious circle. Guilt after over-eating likely encourages them to renew their promises to eat less. And when they fail again to reduce their eating, yet more guilt ensues, this time more intense than before. Given that “45 per cent of young girls currently report dieting”, the researchers said it’s imperative that we learn more about why so-called restrained eaters experience such negative outcomes.


de Witt Huberts, J., Evers, C., and de Ridder, D. (2012). Double trouble: restrained eaters do not eat less and feel worse. Psychology and Health, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2012.751106

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.