This Tweak to the Design of Vending Machines Could Help You Choose Healthier Snacks

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Yes, you can be good and pack all your lunches and stuff them full of veggies, but if your goal is to eat healthy during the workweek, that strategy will only get you so far: What do you do when the midafternoon hunger rolls around? Even the most prepared person may come to a day when their desk supply of good-for-you snacks is depleted, leaving them with just one option: the office vending machine. You know, that thing stocked full of Reese’s and Doritos and other threats to your willpower, just waiting their turn next to the granola bars and bags of nuts. It’s too easy — all it takes is one press of a button to derail your plans to avoid the junky stuff.

But Brad Appelhans, a professor of preventive medicine at Rush Medical College, may have a solution for those struggle mightily to resist the siren call of peanut M&M’s. As NPR recently explained, Appelhans is the creator of DISC (short for “Delays to Influence Healthy Snack Choice), a simple tweak to the typical vending machine that may push snack-seekers toward healthier options. Here’s how it works, according to NPR:

The device is a platform inserted inside a vending machine that catches snacks falling from the top half of the machine, where a vending machine operator would sort all of the unhealthy snacks. On the display window, a written decal tells customers they’ll have to wait for an extra 25 seconds for less-healthy snacks.

When a snack falls onto DISC, it triggers a 25-second countdown on the vending machine’s display screen. At the end of the countdown, DISC drops its platform and the snack falls into the vending machine’s bay. Healthier snacks are all sorted into the bottom half of the vending machine and so would bypass the platform altogether.

In a study set to be presented this week at the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s annual meeting, Appelhans found that when he implemented this “time tax” in vending machines around Rush’s campus, people really did opt for the machine’s healthier options more frequently. As Science of Us has written before, we’re all lazy slobs at heart, a fact that we can exploit in our favor by intentionally making some choices easier than others. This seems like one of those times: Waiting is its own kind of effort, and you have better ways to spend your mental energy than by forcing yourself to wait patiently for a snack.

To Help People Eat Healthier, Tweak the Vending Machine