I just celebrated my birthday with a scrumptious meal at a charming San Francisco restaurant. Sharing a fabulous candle-topped dessert with my companion was a slam-dunk way to end a perfect meal in a splendid restaurant.
Should I regret consuming that delicious dessert?
The answer, happily, is no. I should have no regrets about eating my birthday surprise, and a recent study backs me up.
According to this study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied and reported in a recent issue of TIME magazine, having an occasional dessert may actually be a useful tool to help you eat better.
Here’s what happened: More than 130 university students and staff were offered a choice of two desserts and asked to make their choice at the start of the lunch line in a campus cafeteria. The study found that those who made the “decadent” selection—lemon cheesecake—chose healthier meals and consumed fewer calories overall than those who picked fresh fruit. Simply selecting it first was enough to influence the rest of their order.
Almost 70 percent of those who picked the cheesecake went on to choose a healthier main dish and side dish, while only about a third of those selecting fruit made the healthier choice. The cheesecake-choosers also ate about 250 fewer total calories during their meal compared with the fruit-choosers.
Study co-author Martin Reimann, an assistant professor of marketing and cognitive science at the University of Arizona, concluded that choosing something healthy first can give us a “license” to choose something less healthy later. But if you turn that notion around and choose something more “decadent” early on, “then this license [to choose high-calorie food] has already expired.” In other words, making a calorie-laden choice at the beginning of the meal seems to steer people toward healthier choices later.
No one is suggesting that we all indulge in dessert on an everyday basis. For many of us, the pursuit of good health leads us to avoid sugary desserts and choose fresh fruit instead. But Reimann believes that choosing dessert strategically can pay off. He advises us to be “mindful and conscious about the different choices you make.”
Will I order lemon cheesecake, a chocolate brownie, or a spectacular ice-cream concoction for dessert at my next meal? Probably not. But I am going to keep the Arizona research in mind.
You should, too. Beginning your meal with the knowledge that it could end with a calorie-laden dessert just might prompt you to select a super-healthy salad for your entrée, adding crunchy green veggies on the side.