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Choosing a high-calorie indulgent dessert may lead you to pick up healthier main and side dishes, according to a study.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, placed either a healthy or less healthy dessert (fresh fruit vs lemon cheesecake) at the beginning or end of a university cafeteria line.

When diners picked the cheesecake first, they then chose lower-calorie main or side dishes and ultimately consumed fewer calories than diners who chose the fresh fruit first.

Those effects were not found when either dessert was placed at the end of the food line, researchers said.

“We believe diners who chose the indulgent dessert first then picked healthier main and side dishes to make up for their high-calorie dessert,” said Martin Reimann, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona in the US.

“Diners who picked the healthier dessert may have thought they already had done a good deed for their bodies so they deserved higher-calorie food further down the cafeteria line,” Reimann said.

Three additional online experiments that mimicked a food delivery website had similar findings, except when participants were distracted because they had a lot on their mind.

In that case, participants who chose the indulgent dessert first were more likely to keep making unhealthy choices by picking high-calorie main and side dishes, researchers said.

In the cafeteria experiment, researchers interviewed 134 diners about healthy eating after they passed through the cafeteria line.

Over four days, lemon cheesecake or fresh fruit (but not both) was placed first in the line or at the end of the line.

There also were healthy and less healthy main and side dishes. Diners who chose the indulgent dessert first consumed an average of 30 per cent fewer calories (including the dessert) than diners who picked the healthier dessert first.

Diners who chose the cheesecake first also were twice as likely to order the lighter main dish than diners who picked the cheesecake at the end of the line.

The researchers controlled for other variables that might have affected the findings, including age, gender, body mass index, dieting, exercise and opinions about healthy eating.

The only variable that had significant effects was age, with the difference in calories consumed increasing with age.

Since faculty and staff also used the cafeteria, the ages of participants ranged from 18 to 60 years with an average of 32 years.

Since online food delivery services have become more popular, the study included three online experiments using the same design as the cafeteria experiment but with a mock food delivery website.

The dessert choices were fruit salad or chocolate cake. In the first experiment, 160 participants were asked how hungry they were and how much they thought they would eat of each food item they chose, so overall calorie consumption could be estimated.

The findings were similar to the cafeteria study with significantly fewer calories estimated for entire meals when participants chose the chocolate cake first instead of the fruit salad.

In another online study with 180 participants, the findings were similar when a healthy or less healthy main dish was presented first on the food delivery website menu instead of a dessert.