Junk Food Is Twice As Distracting As Healthy Food, Scientists Say

Is the thought of a mid-morning slice of cake distracting you from your work? You're not alone. A new study reveals that junk food is twice as distracting as healthy alternatives.

Enjoy the delicious chocolate cakePhoto: Shutterstock / HelloRF Zcool

Picture the scene. You’re sitting at your work desk, trying to deal with a particularly boring spreadsheet, and watching the clock. Before you know it, your mind shifts to something more interesting: deliciously, delectable chocolate cake. “Mmm… I’m definitely going to have a slice with my coffee in a bit,” you muse.

If the thought of junk food is enough to tear your mind away from most any task, you’re not alone; not by a long shot. In fact, according to the results of a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University, high-calorie treats are almost twice as distracting as their healthy counterparts.

How the Study Worked

“We wanted to see if pictures of food, particularly high-fat, high-calorie food, would be a distraction for people engaged in a complicated task,” said Howard Egeth, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

To conduct the study, researchers had participants complete a complicated computer task, in which they had to answer questions as quickly as possible. While the task was going on, though, pictures–ranging from food snaps to standard objects–flashed up in the periphery of the screen. The photos were only on-screen for 125 milliseconds at a time, not enough time for people to fully realize what they just saw. The idea was to test which images distracted people the most during the task.

The Results

“We showed them carrots and apples, and it slowed them down. We showed them bicycles and thumb tacks, and it slowed them down. But when we showed them chocolate cake and hot dogs, these things slowed them down about twice as much.”

The most distracting pictures were of high-calorie foods, such as doughnuts, potato chips, cheese and candy. On the other hand, images that showed foods like apples, salads and carrots were almost half as distracting. The results suggest that junk food is way more distracting to people than healthy food.

However, this result only applied when people hadn’t had a sugar fix. The researchers went on to give each of the participants two fun-sized candy bars and then had them carry out the task again. The second time around, participants were not more distracted by the pictures of high-calorie foods than the pictures of healthy foods. The results suggest that after having eaten a high-sugar snack, junk food was less distracting.

“What your grandmother might have told you about not going to the grocery store hungry seems to be true,” explains lead author Corbin A. Cunningham. “You would probably make choices that you shouldn’t or ordinarily wouldn’t.” (Find out how to grocery shop like a boss.)

On a scale of 1 to 10, how distracting are these adorable desserts?
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Charlotte Grainger
Charlotte Grainger is a creative feature writer, with a flair for food, health and lifestyle pieces. Her work has been seen in a number of national publications including Beyond Words Magazine, Reader's Digest and Psychologies. When she’s not typing away, you can find her trying out new recipes or binging Netflix shows— sometimes simultaneously.