What is more likely to cause overeating -- a quick bite on the run or a sit-down meal in a relaxed atmosphere? Surprisingly, it's the rushed eating event that most often seduces us to overindulge. Why? For a number of reasons, most of which we are completely unaware of, according to scientists who study our eating behavior.
If you serve people the same kind of food but provide a different atmosphere, such as lighting and music, they will not only have a different dining experience but will also respond differently in terms of how fast and how much they eat, said Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and consumer behavior at Cornell University in New York.
Together with his co-researcher, Dr. Koert van Ittersum of the Georgia Institute of Technology, he experimented with alterations in fast food restaurants, like toning down lights and playing soft jazz music in the background, to see if it influenced how customers ate their meals. As it turned out, not only did patrons find their meals better tasting and spend more time eating, they also consumed on average about 200 fewer calories!
"The more relaxed environment increased satisfaction and decreased consumption," Dr. Wansink observed. "Making simple changes away from brighter lights and sound-reflecting surfaces can go a long way toward reducing overeating and increase customers' satisfaction at the same time," he said.
Similar effects were found in other studies on food presentation. Adding decorative flourishes, as it is customary in high-end restaurants, can make a significant difference on how people relate to the food they are served, according to one study conducted at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.
Here, patrons were served the very same meal two nights in a row, however with dramatically altered plating styles. On the first night, an entrée consisting of chicken breast, brown rice and green beans was presented in what is considered a traditional style. The following night, the chefs arranged the ingredients more creatively. Overwhelmingly, the second presentation was judged as more pleasing and, although both meals were virtually identical, the food was found to be superior.
These are simple tricks people can use at home just as effectively to make their meals more attractive, said Dr. Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey and lead author of the study report.
One of the reasons why nutrition experts recommend sit-down family meals over TV dinners is atmosphere. When people of all ages take time to focus on their food, enjoy each other's company, and do it in a place that is reserved for eating occasions only, it reflects on their behavior -- and the benefits can be substantial, not the least for nutritional health and weight control.
Distracted food consumption, or as Dr. Wansink calls it, "mindless eating," is considered to be one of the causes for overeating and unwanted weight gain. Paying greater attention not only to what we eat but also how much and how quickly can be an effective countermeasures to overeating. For some, this may take a few lifestyle changes. But it is not complicated, and the results are well worth the effort.