Don't waste your willpower on forcing healthy food choices. Tweak your thought process to choose more nutritious foods with less effort

Getty Images

Reaching for an apple instead of apple pie is all about exercising self-control, but a new study in Psychological Science found there's a less exhausting way to choose: People who have healthy intentions before raiding the snack drawer are more likely to choose not only nutritious, but also tastier treats. (Check out how to Fight Food Cravings without Going Crazy.)

When you decide what to eat, typically two factors come to mind: taste and nutrition. Participants in the Caltech study were shown almost 300 edible options they had previously deemed healthy or tasty on a computer, and researchers tracked how fast their mouse-and therefore choice process-moved.

Not surprisingly, taste factored in more quickly than nutrition for every single participant. But those who typically opt for healthier meals were able to override indulgent impulses quicker, even after fasting for four hours prior to the experiment. Less health-conscious participants, on the other hand, had to exert more self-control to tear themselves away from tasty, bad-for-you foods. (Seriously, why tax your brain? After all, Mental Fatigue Can Slow Your Running Pace.)

The simple lesson here: Instead of agonizing over the indulgences in front of you, head to the fridge with the intention of finding a balanced snack, and you'll naturally zero in on the tastiest and healthiest. And if you realize you have tunnel vision for salty and sweet, give the decision a few minutes. "Since we know that taste appears before health, we know that it has an advantage in the ultimate decision," said graduate student Nicolette Sullivan, lead author of the study. "However, if you wait-allowing the health information to accumulate for longer-that might give health a chance to catch up and influence the choice."

Learning what is truly nutritious now can also help make future decisions easier: Food's affect on health is something you have to learn about or do research on, which is why it takes longer for your brain to factor it in-it's not as intuitive as taste, researchers explains. The more you learn about it, the more intuitive it will become. (Start with these 11 Twitter Feeds for Healthy Eating Tips.)