Can small changes in the food environment encourage healthier eating?

Changing habits and the food environment could encourage healthy eating. An example is the popcorn study: if it's there, people will eat it

For everyone who finds it hard to make healthy food choices and maintain a healthy weight, a new book by US behavioural economist, Brian Wansink, promotes the idea that small changes in the food environment will encourage healthier eating. Wansink has conducted several clever and revealing experiments proving this point — from the Super Bowl study, in which students eat more from larger containers, and the organic aura hypothesis where people perceive foods with health claims as having fewer calories, to the stale popcorn study which shows that if it’s there, people will eat it.

In his book, Slim By Design, Wansink suggests a range of actions that individuals can take, from eating from small plates and bringing one biscuit into the room rather than a full packet when watching the television to making sure the fruit bowl is the first thing visible when you enter the kitchen and chopped vegetables when you open the fridge. Although this might sound like ‘mindful eating’, Wansick claims that it is actually ‘mindless eating’, achieved by making small tweaks to our eating environment — and that includes when we eat out.

To illustrate this, Wansink describes a study he did looking at people’s behaviour at a Chinese buffet. Slim diners apparently scouted out the buffet before picking up a plate, 71% of them walked around and scanned the salad bar, the steam trays holding 14 seemingly identical chicken dishes, the sushi station and the dessert section. Only after they had considered the lay of the land, did they help themselves to food. Heavier diners did the opposite and were twice as likely to pick up a plate and fill it up, serving themselves a bit of everything they didn’t dislike.

Slim people also acted differently after taking their food, moving to faraway tables alongside the walls. Most interestingly, 73% of slim people faced away from the buffet. Heavier diners did the opposite. They also sat at tables that were on average 16ft nearer to the buffet and were three times more likely to sit facing the buffet where they watched people going back for second and third helpings. Not surprisingly, slim people were also more likely to use chopsticks, choose smaller plates and chew each bite an average of 15 times — three chews more than heavy people.

None of this behaviour has anything to do with counting calories or choosing healthier eating items, but instead it is about how slim people scanned the food, where they sat and faced and which plates and utensils they picked up. So how do slim people develop these slim-by-design behaviours? When asked, they said they didn’t know and less than five minutes after they ate they couldn’t remember what they did or why they did it. Without realising it, these slim people had apparently stumbled across habits that help them to eat less.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 8 November 2014, Vol 293, No 7835;293(7835):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20066965

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