Good news for those who struggle with diets: Eating less may be easier than you think, psychologists say. By making simple changes to your environment, you might be able to eat less without really thinking about it.
"Our homes are filled with hidden eating traps," said Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University.
"Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat, and then ask ourselves if we’re full. The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you," Wansink said in a presentation at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting here.
At least that's a key factor, says a study that offers new evidence that people take cues from their surroundings in deciding how much to eat.
It explains why, for example, people who used to be satisfied by a 12-ounce can of soda may now feel that a 20-ounce bottle is just right.
It's "unit bias," the tendency to think that a single unit of food — a bottle, a can, a plateful, or some more subtle measure — is the right amount to eat or drink, researchers propose.
"Whatever size a banana is, that's what you eat, a small banana or a big banana," says Andrew Geier of the University of Pennsylvania. And "whatever's served on your plate, it just seems locked in our heads: that's a meal."
Although we might not be aware of it, something as simple as the size and shape of food containers can fool our brains into eating more.
For instance, in a study of 168 moviegoers, Wansink and colleagues found people ate 45 percent more popcorn out of extra-large containers than out of large ones. Container size was even a stronger influence than the taste of the food: Study participants eating stale popcorn out of extra- large containers ate 34 percent more than those eating fresh popcorn out of large containers.
"They just don’t realize they’re doing it," Wansink said.
And your stomach doesn't always let your brain know you've overindulged.
Wansink and his colleagues designed bottomless bowls, which continually refill with soup from a source under the table. Wansink found people eat 73 percent more soup from these bowls than they did from regular bowls. But they didn't realize they had eaten more, Wansink said.
To be sure, the environment isn't the only influence on how much we eat. Some people might have trouble sticking to diets because of differences in their brain chemistry, other researchers say. Obese people's brains release less dopamine in response to food than others, said Brad Appelhans, clinical psychologist and obesity researcher at Rush University in Chicago. Dopamine is a chemical responsible for signaling rewards in the brain.
But to make your eating environment healthier, Wansink recommends the following strategies:
- Eat meals off of salad plates instead of dinner plates.
- Store healthy foods at eye level in the cupboard and refrigerator and keep unhealthy foods out of sight.
- Don't eat in front of the TV, but instead in your dining room or kitchen.
Participants in one of Wansink 's studies lost up to 2 pounds a month once they made these modifications.
"These simple strategies are far more likely to succeed than willpower alone. It’s easier to change your environment than to change your mind," Wansink said.
Pass it on: Simple changes to your environment may help you eat less without really thinking about it.