An intriguing new study suggests that the order in which we choose food items might have an impact on how many calories we consume overall.
Woman choosing a cake
A recent investigation into food choices reaches a surprising conclusion.

Consumers often face an array of food choices, whether they are picking a meal in a restaurant or from a fast food menu.

Our options often come in a familiar order — starters, mains, and then desserts. Most of the time, we will choose the items we want in the order the menu presents them to us.

How important is this order? If we alter that order, could we also affect the total number of calories we consume? Recently, researchers from The University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson decided to find out.

They conducted a series of experiments, the results of which they recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

The authors summarize the question they wanted to answer: “would we observe different food choices and different magnitudes of caloric intake if an indulgent option was placed at the beginning, instead of at the end, of a food sequence?”

Testing food order

Obesity is a huge and growing problem in the United States and further afield; developing subtle, easy-to-implement ways of reducing caloric intake is more pressing than ever.

Studies have already shown that a range of physical factors, such as portion size, can make a real difference to how much we consume. So, could food order also make a difference?

The scientists ran four experiments; they carried out one in a university cafeteria, and the other three by using a mock food delivery website. Specifically, they wanted to see if choosing a healthful or unhealthful dessert at the beginning of a meal would influence the participants’ next food choices.

Normally, in a cafeteria setting, desserts are at the end of the line. Similarly, on food delivery sites, desserts are at the bottom of the page. For the study, the researchers put healthful and unhealthful desserts at the start of the cafeteria line and as the first option on the food website.

Throughout the four studies, it became clear that individuals who chose a more indulgent dessert would go on to choose less calorific mains and sides. Importantly, overall, they consumed fewer calories.

On average, those who chose a high-calorie dessert consumed 30 percent fewer calories than those who select a healthful dessert first.

“We believe diners who chose the indulgent dessert first picked healthier main and side dishes to make up for their high-calorie dessert,” says lead author Martin Reimann, assistant professor of marketing at UA. He continues:

Diners who picked the healthier dessert may have thought they already had done a good deed for their bodies, so they deserved higher-calorie food farther down the cafeteria line.”

Food choice and cognitive load

In the last of the four experiments, the researchers examined whether cognitive load would impact the results. In doing so, the scientists asked participants to remember either a 2-digit or 7-digit number while they made their food choices.

Interestingly, the effect disappeared when participants were distracted in this way. In these cases, regardless of which dessert the participants chose at the start, they continued to choose less healthful options further on.

According to the authors, this is the first study to investigate “the interaction effect of food type and food presentation order on individuals’ sequential food choices and their overall caloric intake.”

The authors hope that others might use these results to “nudge individuals into consuming less food overall.”

However, the authors note some limitations to their experiments. Firstly, they asked participants to choose between two polar opposite desserts, each at “the two extremes of the healthfulness continuum of foods.”

For instance, in the first experiment, they offered the individuals either an assortment of fresh fruit or a slice of lemon cheesecake. In real-world settings, there is an array of items that lie in between these options on the healthfulness scale. In the future, the research team would like to add a third item that lies somewhere in-between healthful and unhealthful.

The authors also note another limitation — three of their experiments were carried out online, which may not be relevant in the real world. However, because the first experiment took place in a real-life setting, they write that “Taken together, these four experiments lend converging support to our hypotheses.”

So, although the research will need to be backed up by more studies, the conclusions appear interesting. Furthermore, because of growing concerns about obesity, if something as simple as changing food order could help people eat less, it may be worth pursuing.