There is not one national healthcare system in the world that has the capacity or resources to follow up every nation’s person in need of help and support changing lifestyle behaviours. Thus, eating and physical activity behaviours requires that people take personal responsibility for their health and well-being. However, changing lifestyle behaviours is extremely difficult. There are two major reasons why it is so difficult.
First, approximately 70% of your body weight and size is determined by your genes which your body will attempt to maintain. This is not anything you can do much about. Second, the remaining 30% are largely determined by environmental factors that influence our eating behaviours outside our conscious awareness. The good news is that you can change the evironmental factors to work for us instead of against us. Here I show you 10 practical and scientifically proven ways of changing your environment so that you can eat more healthy without thinking about it.
1. Use tall and narrow (highball) glasses.
People tend to pour and drink a lot more juice, soda, liquors, etc. when using short and wide glasses. When people evaluate the volume of cylindrical shapes such as glasses, they tend to focus on height at the expense of width (i.e. the vertical-horizontal illusion). Consequently, we underestimate how much we think we pour onto our glasses. Short and wide glasses should only be used for drinking water. So, replace your shortest and widest glasses with taller and narrower and put them in front in your cupboard.
2. Use small serving aids.
Research has demonstrated how easily we are fooled by the size of serving aids. Put four spoons full of mashed potatoes on a large plate (e.g. 12 inches) and you will most likely underestimate the amount of food on that plate. Put the same amount of mashed potatoes on a small plate (e.g. 8 inches) and you will most likely overestimate the amount of food on that plate. This is the size-contrast illusion in practice. The same amount of food can seem a lot or little depending on the size of serving aids you use. The principle applies not only to plates, but all sorts of serving aids such as spoons, bowls, forks, etc. So, go back in to your cupboards and find the smallest serving aids you have and make them easily available for use.
3. Turn on the lights while eating.
Candlelit dinners and dimmed lights increases our consumption by increasing comfort and decreasing self-consciousness. The more we enjoy a meal, the longer the meal lasts. And the more time you spend eating your meal, the more often you end up eating a second portion, an unplanned dessert or having an extra drink. Also, soft or dimmed lights makes us less self-conscious which makes it harder for us to monitor and inhibit our consumption.
4. Turn of music and remove noise.
Listening to music we enjoy increases comfort just like dimmed lights. The same is true for slow and soft music. We stay longer, we feel more comfortable, we become less self-conscious, and we become more likely to eat more. More research is needed on noises and loud and up-tempo music, but it appears this too can lead us to overeat because we hurry to clean our plates and ignore signals of satiety.
5. Always eat at a table with no disturbances.
Very often we find ourselves eating at sports events, in movie theaters, grab a hot dog on the go, etc. One major problem with eating in such situations where there usually is no table, is that our attention is directed on something else than eating. Disturbances such as watching television, reading a book, talking on the phone, etc. while eating makes us less aware of how much we eat.
6. Always leave leftover food on the table until you are finished eating.
A group of researchers conducted a study in restaurants where some waiters cleaned their customers’ tables during the meal. Other waiters were instructed to let the leftover food stay on the table until their customers’ were completely finished with the meal. The result were that those customers who could see all the leftovers ate less. The results could be explained by the fact that those customers with leftovers on their tables did not have to rely on their memory – they could easily see how much they had eaten.
7. Consider how often you should eat with others.
Eating is very much a shared or social activity with friends and family. Friends and family are good for you, however, eating with others also increases our consumption. The duration of meals are extended and simply observing others can set consumption norms on what is eaten and how much. The effects can be dramatic. Meals eaten with only one other person present increases intake by appr. 30%. Consumption is incremental with increases in the number of people we eat with. Eat with 7 persons around the dining table and it is not unlikely that you will eat twice the amount of food that you would have eaten if you were to eat alone. Consider suggesting social activities with friends and family that do not necessarily involve eating.
8. Buy food in medium or normal sized packages and portions.
Both large- and small-sized packages and portions makes us eat more. Large-sized packages and portions increases consumption with about 20% for meal-related foods and about 30-45% for snacks. The more food we stockpile and have available, the more we eat. We also have a cultural tendency to “clean our plates” although we are far beyond the point of satiety. Ironically, small-sized packages and portions also make us eat more because we tend to think of small sizes as diet food(!). The problem is that the food that often comes in small packages and sizes is exactly the energy dense and unhealthy food we really should eat less of.
9. Organize and re-structure your food.
Cleverly designed research demonstrated how a bowl of assorted M&Ms can increase how many you eat. People who were given a bowl of M&Ms with 10 different colours ate about 40% more than people who were given only 7 different colours. Taste could not explain these findings as all M&Ms tasted exactly the same. The lesson to be learned here is that perceived variety suggests consumption norms. This means that you should try to separate and organize foods on your plate in clearly visible patterns, never buy assorted candy, avoid having more than two kinds of food on your plate at buffets and receptions, etc.
These practical tips mainly help you eating more healthy by eating lesser portions or less food that is bad for you. Try reversing these practical tips to eat more healthy foods. For example, if you want to eat more fruits and vegetables: cut them in small pieces, serve them in a large bowl, put the bowl easily available on the table in your living room and eat it in front of the TV. You can find references to the research mentioned in this post and read more about these practical tips in Brian Wansink’s (2004) great review of environmental factors that influence your food consumption.
Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition, 24, 455-479.