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You’ve likely been there. At the supermarket, it is the end of the day and you are hungry. Inevitably, you reach for that little something sugary and junky to tuck into, just to get you home.

According to recent research out of Johns Hopkins University, if faced with sugary or junky snacks when hungry we may be wired to do so.

Published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, researchers set out to confirm people’s implicit bias toward fatty and sugary foods and if that is exacerbated when hungry.

Setting a bunch of hungry participants to the test, they found people were far more distracted by images of junk food than they were of healthier food or non-food items.

“We wanted to see if pictures of food — particularly high-fat, high-calorie food — would be a distraction for people engaged in a complicated task,” said co-author Howard Egeth.”So we showed them carrots and apples, and it slowed them down. We showed them bicycles and thumbtacks, and it slowed them down. But when we showed them chocolate cake and hot dogs, these things slowed them down about twice as much.”

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Junk food may be more distracting than other things when hungry! Source: Shutterstock

While working on the task, participants were briefly flashed pictures of junk food, healthy food or non-food items, visible for only 125 milliseconds. This was long enough to distract them regardless of what the image was but not long enough for the participant to realise what they saw.

Researchers found flashing the sugary and junky foods distracted people for twice as long than the other categories.

Interestingly, in another round of testing, a new group of participants ate two fun-sized chocolate bars prior to the testing. As a result, the distraction by junk food was equivalent to the healthy foods and non-food items.

“But what if we gave them an apple? What if we gave them a zero-calorie soda?” said Egeth. “What if we told the subjects they’d get money if they performed the task quickly, which would be a real incentive not to get distracted. Could junk food pictures override even that?”

The results show that even when we are concentrating hard, junk food can be distracting unless we’ve anticipated this and prepared ourselves against temptation in advance!

What we aren’t saying is before you head out for food or to the supermarket, eat some sweets and you are guarded against picking up sugary or junk foods!

Instead, eat a decent snack before hitting the supermarket, such as a few nuts, a banana or a hard-boiled egg, to give you a better source of energy and keep the distraction of the sugary, junky stuff at bay.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med)

 

References:

  1. Cunningham, C.A. & Egeth, H.E. 2017, ‘The capture of attention by entirely irrelevant pictures of calorie-dense foods’, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 1-10