And it seems our culture could also provide a hefty hit in determining how we think about junk food and when we ‘automatically’ regard it appropriate to eat!
To better understand why we reach for something sweet mid-arvo, researchers from Flinders University in Australia and Liverpool University in the U.K. put 300 17-25-year-old women through a psychological test.
Through using an ‘implicit association test’, researchers found that as the day progresses, our negative attitude toward ‘unhealthy’ food wanes, and therefore our resolve to not eat it.1
When we wake, we seem to associate negative thoughts – like sickness, death, pain and fear – with junk food, such as crisps, chocolate, cake and pizza. But as the day progresses, we gradually do a 180 and our automatic response to that sweet or fried treat is more aligned, in our minds, with holidays and rainbows.
Lead researcher Dr Ashleigh Heynes suggests that cultural beliefs about when a food or drink is appropriate may have a role to play as to how we respond cognitively to foods.
“It may be that the capacity to control the way we automatically think about unhealthy foods declines throughout the day, explaining a more positive evaluation of those foods,” Dr Haynes says.
This is may be because culturally we have a pastime of enjoying a biscuit with an afternoon cuppa.
The results revealed the shift in attitude may be due to decreased control over our thought processes, resulting in a lack of inhibition of a positive reaction to junk foods, rather than seeing an increase in automatic positive reactions.
Participants were also questioned about hunger levels, and only allowed to participate if they were motivated to manage weight through healthy diet, and therefore may have some control over positive reactions to the junk food.
The research contributes to the complex web of understanding as to what drives our food choices. Much needed when finding new ways to treat and manage conditions closely correlated with poor diet like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease! It is also important to inform future studies and research looking at attitude and behaviour toward food.
So, cake is inevitable then?
More research into the area is called for, but for now, do we just accept that a bag-o-Maltesers are an inevitable part of the afternoon tea-break?
It doesn’t need to be.
Maybe we need to alter the idea of what is acceptable for an afternoon snack.
Instead of reaching for a biccie or a Mars bar, equip yourself with better, whole food options that aren’t laden with refined processed flours, oils and sugars.
Enjoy a banana, sliced apple with some nut butter, a handful of nuts, or a snack serve of Greek or plain yoghurt with some berries. You could even go savoury (crazy!) and bust out the carrot sticks with pesto or hummus.
You could make your own treats!
But remember, if you do have that junk-food afternoon snack, don’t be hard on yourself. Enjoy it for what is it, and choose a delicious wholefood option next time!
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med.)
- Haynes, A, Kemps, E, & Moffitt, R 2016, ‘Is cake more appealing in the afternoon? Time of day is associated with control over automatic positive responses to unhealthy food’, Food Quality and Preference, vol. 54, pp. 67-74.