You’ve probably heard of nutrition and health professionals saying that your environment effects your eating behaviors. If you are around people who eat unhealthy, you will eat unhealthy. If you see commercials about certain foods, you will start craving those foods. You may have even heard that certain colors on food packaging or restaurant decor can influence attraction to food.
Well I used to think that this was a bunch of B.S. How could intelligent, self-aware people be influence by such trivial things?
Certainly, it seems a well-informed person would be less vulnerable to such influences about something as important as what and how much you put in your mouth.
Some amazing research forced me to rethink the notion that being smart and well informed is all we need to keep us on the road to better food and nutrition behaviors. It seems like we might be more susceptible to environmental influences on eating behaviors than we think and intelligence doesn’t seem to be a protective factor.
Need proof? Consider some impressive work from Professor Brian Wansink from Cornell University:
How much you eat is influenced by your proximity to food
One study showed that if a candy dish was at arm’s length versus several feet away from your desk, you would eat an extra 125 calories of candy a day. (This alone could account for an extra 12 pounds a year). And if the container was clear, you would also eat more.
Another study showed that when food was left on a table at dinner, people would eat 10-29% (men more, women less) more than if the food was on the counter or in another room.
How good it tastes depends on the presentation and description
People rated food as tasting better when it was on fancy dishware. When the same food was presented on cheap plastic plates, it was always rated as less tasty.
Another study found that when nutritious foods were displayed with more light and in the front of the cafeteria line, consumption increased.
And another cafeteria study showed a 27% higher consumption of meals when they were given a fancy description, compared to the exact same meal when given a plain description.
How much you eat is influenced by the size of the container
Multiple studies show that when a container is larger, you will eat more.
And it doesn’t even matter if the food tastes good or if you aren’t hungry. One study gave people stale popcorn, which they rated as poor tasting, about 20 minutes after they ate dinner. Then they gave them large containers of it, and they still ate 34% more compared to people given smaller containers – even though it was the same stale popcorn that they didn’t even like! After they were told that they ate more than those eating from smaller containers, every single person said they did not believe that was possible.
Smarty pants – you are just as vulnerable!
I’ll admit that when reading this, I thought the people in this study must have been pretty ignorant to be so easily influenced by subtle things to affect their eating behaviors. Well, Wansink sought out to address this with another awesome study.
Professor Wansink lectured his graduate student at Cornell about the phenomenon of how the size of the container you are eating out of will determine how much you eat. He quoted all of his studies showing that people who ate out of large containers ate more, even though they did not feel more full or believe they ate as much as they did compared to people eating out of smaller containers. They studied the research.
Then the students went on winter break. When they came back, the professor hosted a Super bowl party. Half of the students went to one room containing chex mix and small bowls, the others went to another room with chex mix and larger bowls. The ones in the room with the larger bowls ate 53% more, and when questioned after, they estimated that they ate significantly less than they really did. They all claimed that the bowls did not look bigger, and most provided some rationalization (“well I skipped breakfast the other morning”). So even though they were perfectly aware that that container size makes them eat more, they did so anyways! He even did a similar study at a meeting with the American Diabetes Association and found they were just as susceptible as random people from the mall.
Are we helplessly influenced by our surroundings?
I don’t believe so. Rather, I think this should raise our appreciation of just how strong our surroundings can influence how we eat. I think we use our awareness of these influences to our advantage to reverse such behaviors. For example:
- Do not put candy dishes on your desk or near your work site. If your coworkers insist on having them out, then bring an opaque jar to work and put them in there instead. Not seeing them, and making them far away from you has proven to reduce how much you eat.
- When serving dinner, don’t leave food on the dinner table. Put it in the kitchen instead. It has been proven that you will eat more when food is on the table
- If you are trying to get your family to eat better, use fancy plates and give your dinner a seductive description (try “succulent teriyaki glazed Atlantic salmon with sesame sautéed broccoli” or” Caribbean coconut shrimp with sugar snap peas, roasted almond slivers, and mango salsa”).
- If you are trying to get your family to eat more fruit, put a nice basket of fruit at eye level on the kitchen counter or table. Since we’ve done this, both our kids have eaten an apple and banana a day without any encouragement at all.
Will-power can only do so much
The point is that simply reading books or willing yourself to make changes just doesn’t work. The environmental influence and even addiction issues surrounding food are just too strong. Knowledge helps and a determined mindset is key, but you need more. You need to change your environment, your strategy, your thought process – and you need a plan, support, and accountability. Our egos tell us that we can do it on our own, but this approach has a long history of failure.
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