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Study suggests a high-calorie dessert at the start of a meal might lead to healthier choices later

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Chloe Hislop | The Daily Wildcat Made to order example cakes on display at Safeway in Tucson, Arizona. Safeway’s bakery has cakes ready to purchase and made to order.

New research by a University of Arizona assistant marketing professor came to the surprising conclusion that eating high-calorie foods may actually lead to lower-calorie eating later.

Martin Reimann, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona, wrote an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied titled "If I Indulge First, I Will Eat Less Overall" on Feb. 7 with three co-authors. 

Reimann said he wrote this article because it connected with the research he has done for a long time, which is about consumer well-being and how marketing firms can redesign products that benefit the consumer more.

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According to Reimann, the article explores whether one can be swayed to make healthier choices through experimental psychological methods. 

Reimann explained the article specifically hypothesized that choosing a high-calorie dessert while making a meal, in a buffet line was the example given, could sway a person to make healthier choices for the rest of the meal, therefore decreasing the overall calorie content of the meal.

“It matters simply at the point of choice, not at the point of consumption, where we started, but at the point of choice,” Reimann said. “The way it's ordered sets a particular signal for subsequent choices. So if you're saying, if you choose a light salad first, you still have a license later to indulge.” 

Reimann said he and his colleagues created an experiment with two buffets, one with the higher-calorie dessert at the end, like normal, and one with the dessert at the beginning. 

They got the calorie counts of all the dishes from the cafeteria chefs and had raters calculate the calories of each of the meals eaten by subjects. 

Reimann said they observed that those who chose a high-calorie dessert at the beginning ate fewer calories overall than those at the dessert-last buffet.

Reimann said as the research for the article continued, they took another step in the experiment and tested whether starting out the buffet with a "heavier" entrée, instead of dessert, would lead a subject to make healthier choices for the rest of their meal.

According to Reimann, the study also explored the theory's implications in online dining such as through Grubhub or Uber Eats. 

He noticed these online food ordering services also use the same order as most buffets, where lighter appetizers are listed first and heavier items, such as desserts, are listed last. 

Ashlee Linares-Gaffer, an assistant professor of practice at the Department of Nutritional Science, said while this article definitely tackles nutrition from a psychological perspective, there is also nutritional research that supports the article’s theories. She said there are theories in nutrition about how people’s bodies can be satisfied by consuming fat, which she believes is the secret behind eating the "indulgent" foods first mentioned in the article.

“At a physiological level, in a neurological level, there are things biochemically that happen when we see food, when we smell food, when we taste food, and different signals start taking place in our body at a hormonal level. And I think some of those theories are at play with what they found here,” Gaffer said.

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Gaffer said the article did not necessarily convince her eating indulgent foods before meals should be a nutrition strategy used by everyone, and she thinks there should be even more research done, but she said she does believe it could help some people be healthier.

“It’s one piece of a puzzle as we’re thinking about what influences people’s decisions to choose certain foods,” Gaffer said.


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