Personal Health

The Appeal of Free Food: A Look Into Food Psychology

Do you often find yourself unable to pass up free samples in the grocery store or those donuts and cookies in the office break room? If so, you're far from alone. We're all drawn to free food, and it's easy to keep going back to the communal snack bowl almost unconsciously, without a second thought.

But what exactly is behind this mysterious pull? Let's look at food psychology to better understand why we seemingly can't keep our paws off of free food, how we are manipulated by it, and how we can enjoy complimentary calories without going overboard.

Why Can't We Resist?

What is it about free food that makes it so hard to say no? It may be that the increasingly expensive world we live in makes it hard to turn away anything being offered to us for free, let alone something as essential to survival as food.

Let's take this thinking a step further: According to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, all types of species make food choices based on risk and reward. Those free pastries in the office break room represent a big reward (lots of calories) for a small risk (no cost, low energy expenditure), so it makes sense that our brains would be inclined to go in for one (or three).

There may also be personal factors at play for each of us as we make choices related to free food. Maybe you can't say no to a particular co-worker's brand of peer pressure, or you skipped breakfast before heading to work. Perhaps having to look at those pastries sparks cravings or wears down your resolve to abstain as the day goes on. It may be a combination of these or similar factors. But the bottom line is that human food psychology makes free calories hard to resist.

Big Business Tactics

Free samples are a tool companies use to promote their products -- and it can really pay off. Naturally, grocery stores want to add another weekly purchase to your shopping list, and the increased sales numbers appear to indicate that they've hit a gold mine via this tactic. It's clear that sampling is a powerful selling tool, and businesses will take advantage of the psychological chord that free food strikes in us.

Staying Focused

Rather than constantly fighting against your hardwired food psychology, you can find ways to enjoy free samples and goodies in an appropriate and healthy way. By using mindfulness, you can stay focused on the task at hand, whether that's working or grocery shopping. Here's a few tips for balancing healthy options with a treat or two:

  • Have a healthy snack before heading out to the grocery store to ensure that you don't eat a few too many samples.
  • Only try samples of products that you might actually be interested in purchasing.
  • If you do try a sample, only eat one. The calories you get from one sample are insignificant, but five samples add up quickly.
  • When you find yourself going for that free sample or office treat, ask yourself if you're actually hungry. If the answer is no, then try to resist the urge.
  • Keep healthy snacks at your desk so you always have something to nibble on instead of office desserts.
  • Set some ground rules for yourself with treats in the workplace, like only having a goodie on Friday or splitting a dessert with a co-worker once per week.
  • Spark some change in your office by bringing healthy snack options that everyone can feel good about having.

By understanding why we're drawn to free food and how it affects our behavior, you can make better choices when temptation strikes. Focusing on mindfulness and having alternatives on hand will help you make the healthiest choices possible.

Posted in Personal Health

Christina Manian is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally from the Boston area, she attended Boston University where she majored in nutritional sciences with a concentration in dietetics. She recently completed her nutrition education at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on medical nutrition therapy. While her background has mostly been in the clinical setting, Christina embraces wellness nutrition as the backbone of optimum health. She is excited to be able to educate a larger audience about nutrition through the written word.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.