Setting the Mood

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It is well known that how much we eat is influenced by a multitude of factors, aside from how hungry we feel. These factors include social settings; food packaging; size, shape, and color of dishes; distance from the serving bowl or plate; and what people perceive to be a normal serving size. As noted in the Diabetes Self-Management article “What Really Determines What We Eat,” most people refuse to believe that such factors have an influence on them — but experiments have confirmed, time and again, that they do. For example, a bigger serving bowl leads to people taking — and eating — more snack food, regardless of whether they actually like the way it tastes.

In many cases, however, simply knowing that we are susceptible to factors other than our hunger does not necessarily mean we can easily control them. In the real world — where people tend to eat in social settings, and not choose the size and color of their plates for each meal — it may simply be too difficult to recognize what factors are leading us to eat the amounts that we do. But a new study confirms the importance of a factor that most of us can recognize: whether our eating environment is busy and stress-inducing, or calm and relaxing.

Coauthored by Brian Wansink, the same researcher who wrote the article mentioned above, and published in the journal Psychological Reports, the study sought to find out whether altering the environment in a fast-food restaurant had any effect on how much people ate. As noted in a Reuters article on the study, one area of a Hardee’s restaurant was give a makeover that included plants, paintings, mood lighting, and soft instrumental music. After they ordered and received their food, some diners were directed to eat in this area, while others were directed to eat in a conventionally decorated area. By interviewing customers in both areas about their dining experience and analyzing how much they ate, researchers determined that customers in the redecorated area consumed fewer calories, spent more time eating, and rated their food as more enjoyable than did the other customers.

This study would seem to have obvious implications for fast-food restaurants: that keeping their brightly lit, busy atmosphere will make sure that people order lots of food and are out quickly. For people who want to eat less, however, it may serve as a reminder that choosing the setting in which we eat is almost as important as choosing what we eat. While having a salad for lunch may leave you unsatisfied if you wolf it down at your desk, that same salad may leave you feeling full if you eat it slowly at a table filled with conversation. Furthermore, although this would be difficult for any study to address, it is possible that different environments affect what kinds of food we feel like eating. We may feel like savoring the flavors of fruits and vegetables in a relaxed setting, while in a stressful setting our bodies may instinctively crave more calorie-dense foods out of fear that there might not be enough time to eat.

Do you notice that you eat more or less food in certain social settings or environments? Do you believe that relaxation, or stress, has an effect on how much you eat? Would you be more likely to visit a fast-food establishment that provided a calm atmosphere for eating? Do you find eating at home to be more or less stressful than eating out? Leave a comment below!

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