Ever eaten a salad at lunch to offset the fatty dessert at dinner?

A new study in mice says that exercising our food choice by eating a little bad of this, and a little nutritious of that, is probably not a good strategy for losing weight, or being healthy.

In a first of its kind study researchers at Virginia Tech took a look at the issue in terms of mimicking a real world environment in which people more often than not alternate between eating fattening foods or healthy low-fat ones, such as strolling the grocery store aisles and throwing a bag of cookies in your cart along with a bunch of kale.

Having a choice of either a high-fat or low-fat diet can lead to overeating, researchers found.

Scientist who wrote the paper include George Davis, a professor in both the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise and the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at Virginia Tech; and Deborah Good, an associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise.

Davis and Good are in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and are affiliated faculty of the Fralin Translational Obesity Research Center.

In this study, the team used two sets of mice mothers – those given a high-fat diet, and those given a low-fat diet. The offspring were then given a diet that was high fat, low fat, or one in which they had a choice of foods.

The offspring that had a choice of high- or low-fat foods gained body weight and body fat, and had increased glucose levels. Those on a low-fat diet showed no such negative impacts. They did, however, have a higher energy expenditure compared to those on low- or high-fat diets. Essentially, the mice burned more energy as they wandered around and evaluated which food they were going to eat.

“This study helps to show that if you make good choices, you can overcome some of your natural tendencies and be healthier in the long-run,” said Renee Prater, the associate dean for curriculum, assessment, and medical education at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, who was also a study author.

On a larger scale, policymakers could also potentially use this information as leverage to price healthy foods more competitively or make them more available to consumers.