Madison, WI — When it comes to food, our stomachs may know very well when they’re full, but the brain has veto power. And, it turns out it’s pretty easily tricked.

Studies in the latest Journal of Consumer Research looked into just how context and comparison derail even the best intentions. They point to critical learnings for brands trying to support people with chronic disease through meaningful behavior change out in the very tempting real world.

Lesser temptations are harder to resist 

Say you’re on a tight budget. While out shopping, you see a gorgeous pair of red-soled Louboutins for $900. Obviously you cannot buy the Louboutins. But in the next window you see a nice pair of Nine West sandals on sale for $99. Now your brain doesn’t outright reject the idea of the new shoes – that you have no money for – immediately. It’s a lesser temptation. One that’s harder to resist.

The same thing happens with food. It’s easy enough to reject the molten chocolate lava cake on the dessert menu, but harder to turn down the light cheesecake with fresh fruit or the bite-size dessert samplers.

For our chronic disease suffers, it means the Friday night pizza isn’t the only problem. It’s the sides, the tastes, the lesser tradeoffs that invisibly add up.

Read the study.

Healthy choices derail health decisions

Including calorie counts on menus does seem to have an impact on nudging both restaurants and customers to make healthier choices.

But, the impact may actually be reversed when all those “good” options are organized in a “healthy choices” section of the menu.

Researchers found that consumers consider the healthy menu separately (will I eat from there or from the regular menu?). Having the low-cal options nearby makes people feel better about the overall menu, but less likely to actually make a healthier choice.

That’s in part because people believe healthy food tastes differently, particularly that it’s rough and less appealing (this brownie study is a prime example).

Some restaurants, including Burger King, have even turned that research to their advantage, making healthier options, like Satisfries, even more rough in texture than they might naturally be to trigger that instinct about what healthy feels like.

For our chronic disease suffers, that means we have to foster better experiences with better-for-you foods, breaking down these perception barriers and helping them find good choices that don’t feel like a sacrifice or a punishment.

Read the study.

Health claims have a biasing effect 

People tend to eat more calories at restaurants that have a health halo, like Subway, than at those considered down-right unhealthy, like McDonalds.

Researchers call this “vicarious goal fulfillment.”

People underestimate the calorie count of meals at healthy restaurants, they order more sides, and generally make less healthy choices.

“Remarkably the biasing effect of health claims on calorie estimations are as strong for consumers highly involved in nutrition as for consumers with little interest in nutrition or healthy eating,” the study said.

For our chronic disease sufferers, that means we have to create new aphorisms and memorable “food rules” that make it way easier to interrupt the marketing and understand its real meaning.

Read the study.

Posted by: Leigh Householder

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation and Insights for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for building and scaling a global team of healthcare experts who together help life science leaders better understand the complex lives, influences and expectations of their customers. Specifically, they uncover actionable insights that fuel empathy and creativity; lead co-creation events that let marketers learn from peers, trends, and new possibilities; and help clients identify the most valuable and useful new customer experiences to create.

Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for nearly 20 years.She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she held several leadership roles at our largest agency, GSW.  There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business.

Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes.

A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. This year, she led over 250 experts to experts to focus on the most important changes in the commercial, consumer, marketing, digital and healthcare landscapes. (See reports at

Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice and Top 10 Innovation Catalysts of 2017 by MM&M, Leigh also was recognized  as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.