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Headed to the grocery store? Try this one trick to avoid temptation

by Meghan Holohan /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Grocery shopping on an empty stomach can be a big mistake – you may end up with a cart full of cookies, chips and ice cream. But there's an easy solution — eating an apple before grocery shopping encourages people to buy healthier foods, a recent study finds.

“Just having a small health snack before shopping can help you steer people toward healthier choices,” writes Aner Tal, a research associate at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, via email.

 Closeup detail of a woman shopping in a supermarket; Shutterstock ID 270805166; PO: TODAY for Health/ Lauren Shutterstock / Minerva Studio

What motivates people to buy vegetables rather than junk food?

Researchers from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab performed three experiments. In the first, they randomly provided an apple sample, a cookie sample, or no sample to 120 shoppers. Then they examined the participants’ purchases; those who ate an apple bought 28 percent more fruits and vegetables than those who ate a cookie and 25 percent more fruits and vegetables than those who had no sample.

“Eating something healthy primes healthiness as a concept in people’s minds. It can be non-conscious,” says Tal. “But it leads people to be sensitized to and steers them towards healthier foods.”

In the second study, the researchers randomly gave 56 people either a cookie or an apple and asked them to shop virtually and choose between 20 food pairs, which include a high and low calorie choice. Cookie consumers picked unhealthy foods more often.

The last experiment looked at if using labels of health and unhealthy could influence behavior. The researchers randomly divided 59 participants into three groups: one group drank “healthy chocolate milk,” one group drank “rich indulgent chocolate milk,” and the third drank none. Subjects again virtually shopped and those who drank what they thought was healthy milk (the milk was all the same) selected more healthy foods.

 Red apple isolated on white background cutout; Shutterstock ID 273001724; PO: Brandon for Health Shutterstock

Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, says the study shows that making a smart decision can help people become better shoppers.

“An apple before you start leads to better choices in your cart,” she says.

While enjoying an apple certainly helps, Bonci says people can try a few other tricks to change their shopping habits. Always take a list when shopping; it prevents splurging on unhealthy foods. And, consider chewing gum or drinking water—it keeps the mouth busy and reduces temptation.

“Chewing gum or maybe [drinking] a bottle of water is something to do with your mouth that is also filling up the gut,” she says.

If gum and water don’t cut it, consider eating a healthy snack while in the grocery store. There’s nothing wrong with grabbing an apple or tearing into a bag of baby carrots while strolling the isles (do remember to pay for your snacks, though). Another tip? Avoid the checkout lines with candy at the end.

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