Researchers say delayed gratification may actually be a great diet trick.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz
Updated July 21, 2016
Takeout container on red background
Credit: Guy Crittenden/Getty Images

Anyone who’s ever grabbed a bag of pretzels and snacked while pushing a cart through the grocery store knows just how hard it can be to make smart food choices when you’re feeling peckish. Now, science has some more evidence to support it: according to a new set of findings from researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University, one reliable way to avoid high calorie food and prevent overeating is to pick out your food at least one hour before you plan to eat—effectively getting out in front of your hunger (and your craving for chili cheese fries). The study was published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

“Our results show that ordering meals when you’re already hungry and ready to eat leads to an overall increase in the number of calories ordered, and suggest that by ordering meals in advance, the likelihood of making indulgent purchases is drastically reduced,” study author Dr. Eric M. VanEpps, said in a statement.

VanEpps and his team examined three different scenarios, two of which followed online lunch orders of 690 employees using a corporate cafeteria and one of which tracked 195 university students selecting from catered lunch options—all with similar results. The bottom line: the shorter the period was between ordering and eating, the larger the number of calories were consumed. In the first study, for instance, participants placed a lunch order at 7 a.m. to be picked up between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. For every hour they delayed between ordering lunch and eating, they ate approximately 38 calories fewer calories, regardless of other factors, such as whether they'd eaten breakfast. In all of the groups, those making pre-planned choices expressed the same amount of satisfaction with their meals as their impulsive counterparts.

What’s the takeaway? Turns out that meal planning and food delivery services aren’t just conveniences—they can be diet tools, too. And though saving 38 calories per lunch may not sound life altering, done alongside other small, healthy changes, it might just be the thing that makes the difference between sticking to a successful eating plan and not.