Skip to Content

Non-Food Incentives Can Make You Eat Less


Similar to the concept behind the McDonald's happy meal, non-food rewards or toys motivate both kids and adults to chose smaller portions, according to a new study.

Researchers from Cornell Food & Brand Lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to see how the brain responds to rewards. They discovered that incentives - small toys, a gift card, or a lottery ticket - trigger the same responses in the brain that a tasty meal or snack would. And the majority of kids and adults will choose a half-sized portion of food when it's paired with this type of prize.

"Clearly, eating less is not fun for many people (and may even be a source of short-term unhappiness), as portion size restriction requires discipline and self-control," the authors said. "Yet, by combining one shorter-term desire (to eat) with another shorter-term desire (to play) that in combination also address a longer-term desire (to be healthy), different sources of happiness become commensurable."

Sacrificing calories for a gamble

The study also found that the mere prospect of getting a prize is more motivating than the actual prize - people were more likely to choose a smaller meal if it came with just the chance to win a $10 lottery ticket.

"Unlike the Happy Meal, which offers a toy every time, adults were willing to sacrifice calories for a gamble," said Deborah MacInnis, professor of business administration at USC Marshall.

The findings suggest that people can reward themselves for eating less food by using non-food rewards.

"This substitution of rewards assists consumers in staying happy and satisfied," the authors wrote.

Parents, too, may learn that reinforcing their children's good behavior with non-food items could help kids avoid overeating.

The study is published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

Source: Cornell Food & Brand Lab