Proof junk food is like a drug: Researchers found sugary and fatty foods distract people twice as much as healthy snacks

When you’re hard at work and you get into that highly productive “zone,” it might feel like nothing can stop you. However, scientists have shown that junk food can snap you right out of focus – even if you only see it subliminally.

In the study, which was carried out by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, people were asked to work on a complex computer task that had nothing to do with food. They were instructed to find the answers as quickly as they could, classifying symbols into categories.

While they worked on the task, photos were flashed in the screen’s periphery for a mere 125 milliseconds, which is considered too fast for them to fully realize what they saw. They were shown a mix of pictures that included healthy foods; foods high in fat and calories; and non-food items like footballs, lava lamps, thumbtacks and bikes.

While all of these pictures distracted participants from the task, foods like candy, chocolate cake, hot dogs, potato chips, cheese and donuts were twice as distracting as the non-food pictures and those of healthy foods like salad, apples and carrots. Moreover, they discovered it’s not food in general that is distracting as the healthy foods were no more distracting to participants than the non-food items.

Afterward, they recreated the experiment but threw in a twist: A new group of participants ate two fun-sized candy bars before carrying out the same computer task. Interestingly, the participants who ate the candy beforehand did not find the high-calorie, high-fat food pictures to be any more distracting than those of healthy food and non-food pictures.

Now, the scientists would like to find out if eating less chocolate prior to the test or consuming other types of snacks would lead to the same effect. For example, they’d like to see how eating an apple ahead of the task would change distraction levels. They’d also like to investigate whether offering the participants money to perform the task quickly would prevent them from getting distracted to discern just how strong the pull of junk food is.

Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach

According to lead author Corbin A. Cunningham, this finding supports the old adage about not going grocery shopping when you’re hungry as the highly distracting nature of unhealthy foods could lead you to make unwise decisions. He said that even when food is irrelevant and people are trying to concentrate, junk food has a tremendous ability to sneak in and steal our attention, unless we’ve just eaten some of it!

What gives junk food the power to distract us?

In explaining the phenomenon, Cunningham said that one of the reasons that junk food appears more tempting than healthier options is the biological desire to eat energy-dense foods because they tend to taste better. He also believes there could be a little bit of “wanting what you can’t have” at play.

“While it is hard to tell, I think some of the rewarding nature of high calorie foods might be that we know we should only occasionally indulge in them. Thus, they become more ‘rewarding’ than foods that we could eat as much as we want,” Cunningham said. Their findings were published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

The more we can learn about what drives people to eat junk food, the better off we’ll be as a recent study published by Lancet found that a fifth of all deaths around the world are caused by junk food, processed food, and otherwise toxic or harmful food, making it just as dangerous as smoking.

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