New Study Reveals Why Your Brain Chooses Junk Food Over More Nutritious Options

Junk food is hard to resist. Even when we tell ourselves we want to make healthy diet choices, lots of us may struggle to stick to those choices when faced with the temptation of our favorite sweets or snacks. And while many people often blame a lack of willpower for our failure to stick to healthy options, a new study recently published in "Nature Human Behavior" reveals a different reason (via Eat This, Not That!).

Researchers from The London School of Economics and Political Science's Department of Management conducted a study of 79 individuals, in which they were asked to choose between a healthy and an unhealthy food item 300 times. Their results showed that the participants were able to determine the foods' palatability — whether it would taste good — in about half the time that it took for them to determine if the item was a healthy choice or not.

Determining if a food is healthy takes longer than determining how it will taste

This study suggests that it is the speed of our cognitive processing, rather than mere willpower, that influences our food choices (via LSE). People are more likely to choose something delicious, even if it is unhealthy, because they can determine very quickly that the food item will taste good. It simply takes longer for our brains to process the fact that a food is healthy. Very often, we might start to snack on an unhealthy treat, before information about its healthfulness even has time to enter our minds.

"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," said Dr. Nicolette Sullivan, professor at London School of Economics and lead author of the paper. "We may well know how healthy or unhealthy a food is, but our brain thinks first about what the food tastes like. We end up making unhealthy choices because it takes us too long to process the information about whether a food is healthy."

People make healthier food choices when they take their time

But just because we might be predisposed to quickly reach for that tasty cupcake, even if it might not be the best for us, that doesn't mean we are always doomed to make unhealthy choices. Dr. Sullivan went on to say that, "We also found that people who take longer to decide what to eat end up making more healthy choices. In fact, even those who generally make unhealthy choices will make the better choice when they take longer. This is because taking longer allows that slower-processed health information a chance to have a say" (via LSE).

When it comes to selecting food, whether in a restaurant or on the grocery store shelves, simply not rushing yourself is key. And the next time you go to reach for a slice of cake instead of a salad, just know that a big part of the reason why is because your brain is programmed to do so. So rather than beat yourself up about giving in to junk food cravings, simply focus on making smart choices for the long term, and when it comes to selecting food options, don't be afraid to take your time.