As we’ve noted in the past here at DiabetesSelfManagement.com, many different factors can influence how much we eat, other than how hungry we feel — including food packaging, social setting, and the shape, size, and color of plates and bowls. Most people don’t believe they are influenced by such factors, but study after study has confirmed that they do, in fact, have an effect. Yet knowing how we are likely to react to these factors can help us recognize and change our behavior, and even modify the situation so that these factors work in our favor.
One factor that can affect what, and how much, we eat is either a stressful or a peaceful eating environment. As we noted in a Diabetes Flashpoints post in 2012, a noisy and brightly lit environment encourages people to eat more and to eat more quickly. Conversely, a peaceful eating environment — with plants, softer lighting, and less noise — encourages people to eat more slowly and savor their food, which leads to fewer calories being consumed overall. The study on which that post was based did not, however, examine whether people choose to eat different foods in different eating environments, only how they eat food they’ve already chosen.
So a new study on behavior in school cafeterias may add some important details to what we know about how an eating environment affects behavior. Presented at the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans last month, the study observed 274 children in New York City public schools, all in kindergarten through second grade. Researchers took note of what the children took from the serving line, what they actually ate, and whether the lunchroom environment seemed to have any effect on these behaviors. While 75% of the kids took a lean-protein entree from the serving line, only 58% took a fruit and 59% took a vegetable. But taking a food didn’t necessarily mean a child would eat it. Of those who took a protein, 75% took at least one bite of it, while only 24% of those who took a vegetable ate any part of it. Most kids appeared to be taking vegetables because they thought they should, then forgetting about them.
But these behaviors were not consistent across all school lunchrooms. The researchers noted that the noise level, amount of supervision, fullness of the room, length of the lunch period, and food packaging all had an impact on what and how much the children ate. The kids were more likely to finish their meals if a teacher ate in the room with them, and more likely to eat their vegetables and whole grains if the lunchroom was quieter. They were also more likely to eat their food when it was served cut up into smaller pieces, and when the lunch period was longer. As one of the researchers noted in a Today article on the study, she was “surprised by how much of an impact environmental factors had on healthy eating.”
Have you noticed that your eating environment has any effect on what foods you crave, or on how you eat whatever food is in front of you? Is it possible for you — or for most people — to find a stress-free environment in which to eat? Have you found any ways to make your eating environment less stressful, or to find inner peace even in a busy environment? Have you noticed that eating more slowly, or in a relaxed setting, has any effect on your blood glucose level? Leave a comment below!