• A new study, after conducting four experiments, says that choosing an indulgent dessert first could help you eat an overall healthier meal.
  • In a cafeteria experiment, a dessert option (cheesecake or fresh fruit) was placed at the beginning or end of the cafeteria line; the online experiments replicated this design.
  • Researchers found that diners who chose the cheesecake at the beginning of the line ate 30% fewer calories than those who picked fruit at the beginning of the line.
  • Additionally, those who chose cheesecake at the beginning were more likely to eat overall lighter meals than those who picked cheesecake at the end of the line.
  • Two of the online experiments reached the same findings; however, the third found that when people had a lot on their mind, they were more likely to pick an overall higher calorie meal after choosing the decadent dessert first.
  • Researchers conclude that our initial food choices and our mental load have a direct effect on how healthy our meal is.

Quick Summary

A new study “If I indulge first, I will eat less overall: the unexpected interaction effect of indulgence and presentation order on consumption” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied says choosing a decadent dessert first might lead to your eating an overall healthier meal. Researchers from the University of Arizona found that individuals who chose a high-calorie dessert first, then went on to choose healthier main and side dishes. This resulted in their eating an overall healthier meal than those who chose a lower-calorie dessert.


This study conducted four different experiments, the first of which was conducted in a school cafeteria. Over the course of four days, one dessert option—either cheesecake or fresh fruit—was placed at the beginning or the end of the cafeteria line. Additionally, main and side dishes, which varied in nutrition, were placed throughout. The researchers kept track of the 134 diners’ food choices each day and also noted how much food they left on their plates, to approximate how many calories the students consumed.

The other three experiments were conducted online, using a similar design to that of the cafeteria experiment, only with a food delivery mockup.


The researchers found that diners who picked the cheesecake (the more indulgent dessert) at the beginning of the line, ate, on average, 30% fewer calories overall than those who picked the fresh fruit (the healthier dessert) at the beginning of the line. Additionally, those who chose the cheesecake first were also twice as likely to choose the lighter main dish than diners who picked up the cheesecake at the end of the line.

The findings in two online experiments were similar: participants who chose the more indulgent dessert first, ultimately ate fewer calories overall than participants who chose the fresh fruit first. However, the third online experiment, which explored whether a diner’s mindset could affect their food decisions, found that participants who had a lot on their mind (such as a seven-digit number that the researchers asked them to remember) experienced the opposite effect. These individuals with a high “cognitive load” were more likely to choose an overall higher calorie meal after picking a high-calorie dessert first.


The researchers conclude that initial food choices as well as one’s mindset can influence how healthy (or unhealthy) their overall meal is. Additionally, cafeterias and restaurants, as well as food delivery sites, could take action to encourage healthier eating by reconsidering the placement of healthy and less healthy foods.


Flores, D., Reimann, M., Castano, R, & Lopez, A. (2019, February 7). If I indulge first, I will eat less overall: the unexpected interaction effect of indulgence and presentation order on consumption. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Retrieved March 7, 2019 from https://www.apa.org/images/xap-xap0000210_tcm7-251525.pdf

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