Researchers out of Johns Hopkins have good news and bad news for struggling dieters. The good news is they can make unappetizing low calorie food seem really, really delicious. The bad news? It will only seem tempting if you have to work hard to get it first.

The study, “Greater effort boosts the affective properties of food,” published in this week's Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that vigorous work can increase our enjoyment of foods that we might not otherwise find palatable.

“Basically, what we have shown is that if you have to expend more effort to get a certain food, not only will you value that food more, but it might even taste better to you,” said associate research scientist, Alexander Johnson, in a release put out by Johns Hopkins. In other words, reward yourself with a non-fat string cheese after a trip to the gym, and it may start to taste as good as a buttery fromage de meaux.

Johnson and fellow researcher Michela Gallagher trained lab mice to two press levers. The rodents had to push the first lever just once to receive a sweet treat, while the second lever required 15 presses in order to receive a similar reward. Later when the mice had access to the same snacks without the lever workout, they opted for the one they'd had to work for.

This principle held up even when the snacks at the higher-effort lever were replaced with a low-calorie food.

Using what they call a “licking bursts” (“defined as two or more consecutive licks”) to measure how much the rodents savored their snacks, the scientists found that after working hard for their low-cal snacks, the mice kept coming back to get their tongues on more. The hard work had increased their affinity for foods that they had previously turned their whiskers up at.

The Johns Hopkins release summed up the study this way:

At least in theory, this means that if we had to navigate an obstacle course to get to a plate of baby carrots, we might come to prefer those crunchy crudités over the sweet, gooey Snickers bars or Peanut M&Ms more easily accessible via the office vending machine.

Hmm, seems to us that the biggest obstacle here is convincing us to participate in the obstacle course in the first place. Lie on our couch and eat Cheetos or work really hard for a plate of carrots? A conundrum indeed.

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