You’re at work, feeling a little hungry, low energy or just in the mood to take a break, so you stroll down to the vending machine in search of a snack. You feed some cash into the machine and choose something that catches your eye. A few minutes later, you’re sitting at your desk with an empty bag, greasy fingers and an unmistakable sense of regret. Why didn’t you choose something healthier?
Making snack decisions in a snap doesn’t always bring out the healthiest eater in us. To quantify this truism, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago created a device that can be installed in vending machines that delays the dispensing of unhealthy snacks (candy and chips, for instance) for 25 seconds and but allows healthier snacks (nuts, popcorn) to be dispensed straightaway. A sign on the vending machine lets people know unhealthy snacks will take extra time to receive.
Guess what happened when the experimental machines were made available around campus? Yep, people began to choose healthier snacks.
“We saw a roughly 5 percent change in the proportion of healthy snacks” sales, Brad Appelhans, the associate professor of preventative medicine who led the project, told NPR.
It’s unclear whether people were inclined to pick healthier items to avoid the delay (and skirt the inconvenience) or because of it (more time to consider), but even those of us who don’t have access to the tricked-out vending machines can benefit from hitting the pause button when making our food choices, says Philadelphia-based registered dietitian Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RDN, CEDRD, CSSD, ACSM-HFS. Implementing a snack delay — just allowing ourselves a little extra time to consider our options and their potential effects on our well-being — may allow us to break unhealthy habits.
“A simple wait period that allows someone to reevaluate their decision internally could be very beneficial,” she says. Being mindful of the sodium content of foods or considering total fat and calorie content, she adds, may be especially important for those who have high blood pressure or are trying to lose weight.
Cohn also recommends planning snacks ahead as well. “Even if you change course throughout the day from your plan, simply having a plan will promote more thought of what one is choosing to eat,” Cohn says. “And when someone thinks about what they eat — from a health perspective — they tend to choose foods that are better for their body.”
So next time you’re craving that midday candy bar, try counting to 25 and think about how it will affect your body and how you will feel afterward. You may just find yourself opting for a handful of nuts or some fresh fruit instead.
Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.