There’s a reason we find it hard to resist a cream cake, bacon sandwich or wedge of ripe Camembert.
And it’s not the smell or the taste.
Scientists say we are subconsciously drawn to unhealthy food because we see it as dangerous and attractive.
It’s the same lure that makes ‘dangerous’ people irresistible — and the more danger we sense, the harder it is to ignore.
The lure is the same as that towards situations and people – for example, members of the opposite sex – that we find dangerous.
They asked 57 people of normal weight to draw line with a stylus on a tablet computer as quickly as they could between two dots 13 cm apart.
During the experiment there was a food like a banana or a pizza on one side of the first dot, along with a kitchen appliance like a toaster that acted as a control.
The participants rated the foods on a number of issues such as how much they liked each item, how healthy they were and noted whether or not they were dieting.
They also completed a test of their subconscious feelings about each of the food by saying if they associated them with positive or negative words.
The results showed that test participants bent their lines towards the food pictures even if they didn’t realise it.
Even though they always reached the second dot, the movements of their hands showed that, at a subconscious level, they were drawn to the food.
The study said: ‘Food and food-related stimuli are powerful attentional-capturing cues and strong sources of interference with ongoing actions even if irrelevant to the task’.
Lead researcher Francesco Foroni said that the gender or the BMI of the test participants had little bearing on the results.
But the more unhealthy people thought the food item was and the more negatively they felt about it, the stronger the pull they felt towards it.
Foroni, a doctoral research fellow, said that this was because we think of unhealthy foods as dangerous and we are hardwired to pay attention to dangerous things.
He said this gives us an indication as to why so many diets fail; we cannot resist the very things we should shun the most.