We all know by now that eating healthily is easy, unless you have to do it consistently, day after day, week after week. Scientists have discovered that it may be easier to change your eating environment than having to use will power 24/7. For instance, if you regularly use a small bowl for your breakfast, you automatically dish yourself less yogurt, oatmeal, cereal or whatever else you’re eating each day. Lunch plates and dinner plates also have a major impact on how much we eat; 9-10″ dinner plates cause us to eat less than the more conventional 10.5″-12″plates. The same thing that keeps us from piling up our plates to overflowing levels at buffets keep us from overfilling our plates at the dinner table- the plate can’t hold any more!
Let’s look at a few changes that can make the difference of several hundred calories a week.
- Plate color – A study done at Cornell showed that people took 18% more food if the plate was the same color as your food . When you’re heading for the white foods- pasta, potatoes and rice- go for the darker plates. When heading for sauces that are darker, choose lighter plates.
- Counter visibility – The authors visited 230 homes in Syracuse, NY, weighed the inhabitants and took pictures of all the food that was out on the counters. They then spent 8 months coding the kitchens to figure out what slimmer people did to maintain their ideal weight. The study showed that if food was “in sight, it went in the stomach. ” Interestingly, those who had chips on the counters weighed an average of 8 lbs more than their neighbors who didn’t, but those who had cereal (which has a health halo) in sight weighed on average 21 pounds more than neighbors who didn’t. Soda was quite a villain, with regular soda in sight, people weighed on average 29 pounds more, and diet soda wasn’t much better with an average of 24 pounds of weight gain. The impact was more pronounced for women than for men, perhaps because women spend more time at home than men.
- First seen, first eaten – Studies have shown that you are 3 times more likely to eat the first food you see in the cupboard than the 5th one. Rearrange the cupboard so the lower calorie, healthier foods are the first you see. This also goes for shopping in the supermarket; the outside aisles of the store have the freshest food, while packaged foods with preservatives, lower nutritional value and higher caloric counts are more on the interior. Try to buy whole foods, fruits, vegetables and lean protein whenever possible.
- Wineglass shape – We tend to focus on the height of what we pour, and not the width, so we pour 12% less wine into taller white wine glasses that hold 10 ounces than those wider red wineglasses that hold the same. Even if you’re not a wine drinker, a study with bartenders showed that they poured 30% more alcohol into short, wide 10 ounces tumblers than into 10 ounce highball glasses.
- Family style dinners – When serving dinner, if all your serving bowls are on the table in close proximity, you’re much more likely to eat more than if you served from the counter or directly off the stove. When deciding whether to take more, even a walk to the counter has you asking the question, “Am I really still hungry, or have I had enough?” Also, covers on casserole dishes had a positive effect on controlling portions. Again, proximity and access play a large role in your consumption.
- Table location in restaurants – This was a surprise to me. The authors found that when people sat by a window or in a well-lit part of the restaurant they ate heavier food and ordered more of it. People sitting farthest from the front door ate the fewest salads and were 73% more likely to order dessert. The closer a table was to a TV screen, the more fried food was ordered. Sitting next to the bar motivated people to buy a second drink.
- Home environment – Perhaps the biggest and most important change we can make has to do with our home environment. I had to laugh at myself when our youngest son came home with a box of Cheez-its (which I hadn’t eaten in years) and said, “Have you ever had these? They’re the best snack!” Of course I’ve had those! It just so happens that they used to be my favorite snack and had all the characteristics of addicting food; they’re oily, salty, cheesy and crunchy. As much as I know about caloric consumption, addictive eating behavior, will power, and what’s healthy, don’t you know what happened? When he left the box out on the counter, I had a few handfuls, despite my normal eating habits! I then put the box out of sight and was able to forget about those evil Cheez-its; I didn’t go back for more. If you think that your knowledge and will power will supercede some of these proximity habits, you’re likely fooling yourself.
Here’s a very helpful scorecard entitled “How slim is your home?” that you may want to use. This 10 point checklist will give you in initial peek at whether your home is helping you to gain weight or to lose it.
__1. Salad and vegetables are served first and before the entree and starches are brought to the table.
__2. The main dish is pre-plated and served from the stove or counter.
__3. Your dinner plates are 9-10 ” wide.
__4. You eat sitting at the table with the TV turned off.
__5. There are two or fewer bottles of soft drinks in your refrigerator at any one time. (ideally none, diet or otherwise.)
__6. Your kitchen counters are clear and organized.
__7. Precut fruits and veggies are now on your middle refrigerator shelf.
__8. At least 6 single servings of protein are in your fridge- eggs, yogurt, string cheese, tofu, etc.
__9. Your snacks are kept in one inconveniently placed cupboard, or you have only healthy, low-calorie snacks in your kitchen.
__10. The only food on your kitchen counter is a bowl of fruit.
Each check counts as 1 point. If you score more than 7, congrats! If you get less than 7, try to bump it up to 7 by making some small changes that can really make a difference! How did you do? For more information, check out Brian Wasink’s book- Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life at www.slimbydesign.org. There are more tips and ideas to help you make healthy choices by how you design your environment. If you have other solutions, please email me and I’ll circulate them in a future post. Good luck and happy kitchen reorganizing!