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Possibly. Back in 2005, when researchers from the University of Toronto deprived a group of women volunteers of chocolate for a week, they found that the restrained eaters in the group experienced more intense, chronic chocolate cravings and swallowed approximately double the amount of the forbidden food when it was finally allowed. “When you cut something out of your diet, you’re more likely to overeat it when you do encounter it,” says lead author Janet Polivy.

A new study in Psychological Science suggests that indulgent foods like chocolate may in fact promote better choices. Duke University researchers designed a study to look at how viewing treats such as Snickers and Oreos affected the choice of healthier foods such as salmon or grapefruit. They invited the participants – 79 young adults from the Durham-Chapel Hill area – to fast for four hours beforehand, so they arrived hungry.

First, participants chose between indulgent foods (tasty but not healthy) and disciplined foods (healthy but not tasty). When given a simple one-to-one choice, say between canned salmon and Oreo cookies, nearly all preferred the indulgent snack. But researchers then took the same options and paired each with an indulgent food. For instance, participants saw salmon paired with Oreos, and Snickers paired with Oreos. Participants were told they had a 50 percent chance of getting either item in a pair. When presented with that choice, participants were twice as likely to choose the pair that included a healthy option, such as salmon and Oreos.

One possible explanation involves attention. The healthy item – salmon, say – was the different item among the choices, so it stood out visually. Researchers tracked subjects’ eye movements and found that subjects spent more time looking at salmon and other healthy foods when they were surrounded by indulgent treats.

Paradoxically, the nearby presence of an indulgent treat can cause more people to opt for a healthy food, said study co-author Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. Context, in other words, affects food choices. “When people choose foods, they don’t simply reach into their memory and pick the most-preferred food. Instead, how much we prefer something actually depends on what other options are available,” Huettel said. “If you see one healthy food and one unhealthy food, most people will choose the indulgent food,” he said. “But if you add more unhealthy foods, it seems, suddenly the healthy food stands out.”

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