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One Surprising Reason You Can't Say No to Junk Food, According to Science

If you're struggling to choose healthy foods, it may be more than just your willpower at play.

Whether you consistently find yourself grabbing a muffin to go with your morning coffee or find that you can't pass by the snack aisle in your local supermarket without tossing a bag of chips in your cart, everyone has their vices when it comes to less than healthy food. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2013 and 2016, 36.6% of Americans admitted to giving into their fast food cravings on any given day.

However, new research suggests it's not just your willpower that influences how likely you are to reach for a less than healthy snack when you're feeling peckish. A new research article published in Nature Human Behavior found that it's a more time-consuming process to deem a food healthy than it is to determine whether or not it will be enjoyable to eat.

To conduct the study, researchers at The London School of Economics and Political Science's Department of Management asked a group of 79 adults to choose between two different foods, including both healthy and unhealthy choices, 300 separate times. The study's authors found that it took study subjects half as long to determine a food's palatability as it did for them to decide on its relative healthfulness.

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"Our findings suggest that it is often not our fault that we give into unhealthy foods—our brain is simply slower at processing how healthy a food is compared to how good it tastes. We may well know how healthy or unhealthy a food is, but our brain thinks first about what the food tastes like," explained Nicolette Sullivan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at The London School of Economics and Political Science, in a statement.

Sullivan explained that this may account for why some individuals find themselves reaching for less healthy fare against their better judgment.

eating cookies

"This means that we might eat a biscuit, not because the desire for a tasty snack overwhelms our limited willpower, but because the information about the future health consequences of eating that biscuit does not enter our decision process sufficiently early to influence the choices we make," said Sullivan. "We may have already made up our minds to eat the biscuit by the time our brain catches up with thinking about how unhealthy it is. We end up making unhealthy choices because it takes us too long to process the information about whether a food is healthy."

While cognitive processing time may be a hindrance when it comes to choosing healthy food, research suggests that intentionally practicing delayed gratification may help people make healthier food choices.

A 2009 study published in the journal Marketing Letters found that when individuals ordered groceries that would either arrive the following day or two days later, those who received their food later made healthier choices overall. Similarly, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that individuals who ordered food and planned to eat it shortly thereafter chose higher-calorie fare than those who ordered their food at least an hour before they planned to consume it.

If you want to make your next meal a whole lot healthier, check out these 11 Surprisingly Healthy Fast-Food Orders, According to Experts, and for the latest healthy eating news delivered to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter!

Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more about Sarah