Too tired to cook but want to eat healthy? Skip the deli and order on an app

Prithwiraj Mukherjee March 16, 2017 4 min

A few days ago, I’d had a hard day at work. After reading hundreds of pages of research papers and teaching a class, I was ravenous. I wanted a proper meal and canteen food just wouldn’t do. I had two options — go to either the Subway or the McDonalds nearby.

It’s a no-brainer that I should’ve chosen a Subway sandwich with loads of fresh vegetables and lean meat over McDonalds with its fries and burgers (don’t forget the Coke). But, I chose the latter. This was surprising, considering that the McDonalds was further away from campus, and I normally preferred Subway healthier options.

Could my decision have had to do with my state of mind?

Research proves that mentally drained consumers were more likely to opt for unhealthy but affective food options than those whose brains were less taxed.

Research proves that mentally drained consumers were more likely to opt for unhealthy but affective food options than those whose brains were less taxed  

I can speak for myself, and it does seem to be true in my case.

My normal workday is fairly sedate, unless I have a class to teach. But, when I do teach, MBA classes usually pose a challenge — requiring several hours of preparation, researching multiple sources of academic as well as practitioner literature, analysing a case study with multiple decision variables, and a lot more. Most of my MBA students do all this prep too, leading to a lively but challenging atmosphere in class. Therefore, I use up a lot of mental resources before and in class, leaving me exhausted afterwards.

I had an MBA class to teach the day I chose McDonalds over Subway. And the mental exhaustion possibly had a bearing on my choice of the unhealthier option.

I had an MBA class to teach the day I chose McDonalds over Subway. And the mental exhaustion possibly had a bearing on my choice of the unhealthier option  

Most of FactorDaily’s readers must be having similar challenging jobs, where some assignments leave you completely drained mentally. Have you ever wondered how your choices change because of what frame of mind you are in?

This was the exact question answered in the study by Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin. Experimental participants were randomly asked to memorise a seven-digit number (to deplete their mental resources) or a two-digit number (to not deplete their mental resources), and then asked to choose between an affective dish (rich chocolate cake) and a healthy dish (fruit salad). They found that those who were low on cognitive resources (try performing any mental task after memorizing a 7-10 digit phone number and you will realise how tough it is) were more likely to choose the chocolate cake than the fruit salad.

Interestingly, our propensity to eat junk food may be more in a deli or buffet, where the dishes are on vivid display, compared to when we are ordering from a menu or an online or mobile app which have written descriptions or pictorial displays  

Interestingly, while this effect was observed when respondents chose between actual cake and fruit salad, the differences vanished when they were asked to select the same options from a pictorial catalogue, an effect they attributed to the vividness of the display.

These findings yield a lot of insights into consumer behaviour for marketers. For one, restaurants and supermarkets now know that mental depletion may lead consumers to eat more junk food, and this could help restaurants locate themselves and calibrate their offerings to be more profitable. Moreover, these findings can be generalised to impulse buying in general, outside the food industry.

Shiv and Fedorikhin’s findings have very important implications for us as consumers as well — largely white collar professionals with hectic schedules. We tend to eat more junk food after particularly cumbersome tasks that require us to spend considerable amounts of cognitive resources. This could be the cause of obesity, high blood pressure, and a host of other lifestyle related health problems.

We tend to eat more junk food after particularly cumbersome tasks that require us to spend considerable amounts of cognitive resources  

Interestingly, our propensity to eat junk food may be more in a deli or buffet, where the dishes are on vivid display, compared to when we are ordering from a menu or an online or mobile app which have written descriptions or pictorial displays.

So, in effect, we may be making marginally healthier food choices at the end of a long work day if we order online or through a mobile app as opposed to walking into a restaurant where food is on display. Also, it may be better to order a la carte from the menu, rather than gorge at the buffet, tempting as the latter may seem.

Lead visual: Angela Anthony Pereira


This column is intended to showcase interesting academic research in marketing. The technically oriented reader is encouraged to read the original research articles cited in the column.

Prithwiraj Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of Marketing, IIM Bangalore. Views are personal.