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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought

How Our Environment Affects Our Food Choices

July 07, 2014

By Ben Andrew, B.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Each and every day we make over 200 choices related to food. These decisions can affect our health and well-being. We make most of these decisions without even realizing it. Some examples include:

  • What and how much to eat
  • Which bowl or plate to eat from
  • Where to eat
  • Who to eat with
  • What to do while eating

Your environment has a lot to do with the decisions you make regarding food. By making some small changes, you can improve your food choices and reduce your risks of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Mindless Weight Loss

Brian Wansink, Ph.D., of Cornell University, coined the term "the mindless margin." According to this concept, even a few extra calories a day can slowly lead to weight gain. We do not have to overeat to the point of bloating or discomfort to gain weight. This is what Wansink calls "mindless weight gain."

Conversely, if we cut back on our food intake even slightly, we can lose weight without hunger pangs or fatigue. This is what he refers to as "mindless weight loss."

Here are some of the ways our environment contributes to mindless eating.

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Plate Size and Portion Distortion

One culprit behind many of our overindulgent eating behaviors is something called the "size-contrast illusion." This is an illusion that tricks our brain when we estimate how big something is.

Dr. Wansink showed that study participants who got big ice cream bowls served themselves, on average, 31% more ice cream than those with the small bowls. This difference added up to 127 calories. The same effect occurred when participants used either small or large ice cream scoopers to serve themselves. People who used the big scoopers served themselves 57% more than people with the small scoopers did.

As this experiment shows, when we serve ourselves food, the dish or bowl we use sets the stage for how our minds perceive the serving size. So, for example, a ½ cup serving of pasta on a 6-inch plate will look much bigger and more satisfying than the same ½ cup serving on a 12-inch plate.

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The Convenience Factor

In today's 24/7 society, many of us are always on the go. And so are many of our food choices. We choose foods that are convenient to save time and effort. Unfortunately, this often happens at the expense of healthy choices.

The goal, says Dr. Wansink, should be to make healthy foods convenient and unhealthy foods inconvenient.

For example, what if the candy jar on your desk was in the desk drawer instead? What if it was in the file cabinet across the room? Would you change how much candy you ate?

Dr. Wansink tested these scenarios with real people. The results were quite surprising. People ate less candy as the jar moved farther away from them. The number of calories eaten throughout the day dropped from 225 to 150 to 100. The extra time it took to get to the candy when it was farther away gave employees a chance to think twice about whether or not they were hungry and truly wanted the candy.

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Eating With Friends and Family

Eating is an opportunity to gather with friends and family and enjoy each other's company. Have you ever wondered how the people you eat with change how much you eat?

It just so happens that eating with only one other person increases your intake by 35% — a trend that continues with each additional person in the group. If you sit down to dinner with seven family members, your intake increases on average by 96% — that's almost twice as much.

This trend doesn't hold true for all people, though. Those of us who normally eat a lot by ourselves will eat less when we share a meal with others. Light eaters tend to eat more with others, and heavy eaters tend to eat less.

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Changing Your Food Environment

Here are a few simple changes you can make to your environment to improve your food choices. 

  • Use smaller plates, bowls and utensils to reduce portion sizes.
  • Make unhealthy foods, like soda, chips and candy, more inconvenient: Put them in the back of the cupboard, in a drawer or in another room.
  • Make healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, more convenient: Put them in the front of the cupboard or pre-package some healthy snacks and meals for an easy grab-and-go option. For example, try having a bowl of fresh fruit out on the counter during the day, or bags of nuts ready to go in the car.
  • Be mindful of how eating with others can affect how much you eat.
  • Go slowly. If you find you are finishing meals in less than 20 minutes, try putting the fork down between bites or taking smaller bites each time.
  • Enjoy your food. Try to savor each bite and focus only on the flavor of the food. Ignore everything else going on around you. One way to do this is to chew your food slowly.
  • Meet with a registered dietitian (RD). RDs can help you find even more ways to alter your food environment and meet your health goals. 

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Ben Andrew recently completed his dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital. He graduated with a B.S. in Nutritional Sciences from Cornell University, and will be attending the Duke University School of Medicine in the fall.

More Food for Thought Articles arrow pointing right

Wansink B. Mindless Eating. New York, NY: Bantam Dell; 2006.

Wansink B, van Ittersum K, Painter JE. "Ice Cream Illusions: Bowl Size, Spoon Size, and Serving Size." American Journal of Preventive Medicine. September 2006.

Painter JE, Wansink B, Hieggelke JB. "How Visibility and Convenience Influence Candy Consumption." Appetite. 2002; 38(3):237-38.

Wansink B, Painter JE, Lee YK. "Proximity's Influence on Estimated and Actual Candy Consumption." International Journal of Obesity. May 2006; 30(5):871-75.

DeCastro JM. "Eating Behavior: Lessons from the Real World of Humans." Ingestive Behavior and Obesity. 2000; 16:800-13.

DeCastro JM. "Family and Friends Produce Greater Social Facilitation of Food-Intake Than Other Companions." Physiology and Behavior. 1996; 56:445-55.

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