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Science Explains Why Donuts Are Crazy Distracting

Sugary and fatty foods demand our attention even when we're busy, suggesting that we may be wired to focus on calorie-rich foods over all else.

No matter how busy you may be, donuts are distracting. These are the key findings of a small study that examined how foods and objects can draw attention away from a given task. Researchers found that sugary and fatty foods demand our attention more so than low-calorie foods and everyday objects, suggesting that we may be wired to focus on calorie-rich foods.

The results suggest that “participants rapidly and implicitly assessed the nutritional value of the distractor images presented to them, even when they were entirely irrelevant [to the task at hand],” explained study coauthor Corbin A. Cunningham in a statement.  

For the study, Cunningham and colleagues asked a small sample of 18 participants to take part in a basic task on a computer. While they were working on that, an image of a random food item flashed on the screen. The researchers found that images of energy-dense foods (such as donuts) caused the greatest distraction from the task at hand. They then asked another 18 participants to eat two small candy bars before performing the task, and found that the images bothered them far less once their bellies were full of sugar. Finally, the researchers ran the study on 64 participants (without a pre-study snack) and found that they were more distracted by donuts and other high-energy foods than they were by faces displaying anger and disgust.

“When interesting food stimuli are entirely irrelevant to a task, they still cause some kind of disruption,” Cunningham said. “Our results also provide strong evidence for distraction by foods that have a higher energy density, even when they are entirely irrelevant to a task.”

Perhaps our mind’s focus on energy-rich foods once served as an evolutionary boon, but that was before the obesity epidemic. For parents looking to help their children cut back on sugary and fatty foods, the implications are clear—seeing unhealthy foods tempts us to eat them. That may be why experts recommend that you remove unhealthy foods from your house, rather than keep them in plain sight while forbidding your kids to partake. Because…wait a minute, is that a donut?!

Mmmm. Donuts.