How our food environment affects our behaviour
Did you know that people who have their toaster out on the kitchen counter weigh 4.5kg more than those who keep it tucked away?
Our food environment affects our behaviour much more than we realise — the majority of our food decisions are made unconsciously throughout the day.
Professor Brian Wansink from Cornwell University has spent his professional life studying the effects of the physical food environment on eating behaviour — from the size of the cups we drink our coffee out of to the placement of food items in a supermarket.
His team at the Food and Brands Laboratory research habits that correlate with a higher body weight and habits that are associated with leaner individuals.
Of course, our genes play a substantial role in this and if your parents are overweight then you have up to an 80 percent risk of becoming overweight yourself. Our genes load the gun, but it’s the environment that can pull the trigger.
Some of the observations made are fairly obvious; a common piece of advice is to do the grocery shopping after lunch when you aren’t hungry, as we are more likely to buy junk foods when we shop on an empty stomach.
And I doubt you would be surprised to hear people weighed 4kg more when potato chips or chocolate biscuits were left out on the kitchen counter compared to people who didn’t have the junk food visible.
There are also some less obvious traps.
The researchers were surprised to find that people who left cereal out on the kitchen counter weighed 10kg more on average than people who kept it away. Cereal?!
Putting aside any physiological reasoning related to processed carbohydrate, insulin and fat storage, the behavioural component of this exerts a powerful influence.
The group theorised that people think twice before eating food they view as a treat food (the potato chips), but a food that people view as a healthy addition to the diet (breakfast cereal) is less likely to cue behaviour that encourages us to moderate consumption.
The other side of the coin is investigating the behaviour of lean people to determine which habits help keep them slim. Though you can ask these people to provide details of their food and eating behaviour, they will have difficulty telling you, given we are only conscious of around 15 percent of our food decisions.
A number of observational studies carried out by the Food and Brand Laboratory determined the behaviour of lean people in a buffet breakfast situation and revealed key differences between them and their heavier counterparts.
They found that over 70 per cent of lean individuals scout out the food on offer, figuring what they want to eat before picking up a plate. This was in contrast to over 80 per cent of heavier people who picked up their plate first and evaluated the food dish by dish.
They also found that, on average, lean people sat 16 per cent further away from the buffet and were more likely to sit facing away from the buffet table.
The study design doesn’t allow us to determine cause and effect but these behaviours give clues to behaviour patterns of people who don’t have too much trouble regulating their body weight.
Wansink has some tips to help change your immediate food environment if you are someone predisposed to eating mindlessly.
His first tip is to make the kitchen less comfortable. That’s right — while the modern-day home environment has been geared towards having the kitchen as the hub of the house, when people spend more time in the kitchen they are likely to eat more.
Clearly it’s unrealistic to suggest people renovate their house to change their comfortable and social living space. However there are other environmental changes you can make within your existing living space to reduce likelihood of mindless snacking.
Here are seven tips (informed by Wansink’s research) that I share with clients:
- De-clutter your kitchen. Wansink’s group found people who were invited into a kitchen that was cluttered and messy were likely to eat 44 per cent more than those invited into a tidy kitchen.
- Keep four protein-based options in the fridge ready to eat: hard boiled eggs, full fat yoghurt, cheese and leftover meat are great examples. Having these satisfying and nutritious food choices on hand makes you less likely to gravitate towards less nutritious food choices.
- Keep all your treats in one place. If they are placed in different cupboards you are faced with temptation every time you open a cupboard.
- Brush your teeth before you leave work. If you are in the habit of snacking as soon as you get home, the minty flavour will curb the dash and grab that can occur.
- Serve food in the kitchen and eat it at the table, as you will eat close to 20 per cent less.
- Drink from tall thin glasses rather than fat, wide glasses.
- Eat off plates that contrast with the colour of your food.
Behaviour around food is just one of many factors that interact in complex ways to influence body weight, however I believe it’s an important one. People argue that there is no such thing as a bad food and I would agree, to some extent. It is behaviour around food that is important. Given how much of this is influenced by our environment, these seemingly small changes could make big differences to your overall food intake.
Peanut butter fudge
Here is a delicious real food treat that is sugar-free. Keep hidden away in the freezer (or give away as a gift) — it is super-easy to make.
Makes 18 pieces
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup coconut butter (I used Ceres Organics)
½ cup coconut oil, melted
¼ cup chia seeds
Line a loaf tin with baking paper. Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a loaf tin, smooth over the top and set in fridge. Cut into 18 pieces.
To favourite, print or share this recipe, go to the recipe page.
Through her subscription service of meal plans and nutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. To find out more and to sign up, visit mikkiwilliden.co.nz.