The ridiculous things that make you fat

By Nathan Jolly

What influences you when you're eating out? Photo / iStock
What influences you when you're eating out? Photo / iStock

Eating healthily takes a lot of effort.

Temptation is everywhere you go, willpower is a finite resource, and the good news - well, kinda - is that when you fall off the wagon next time, it really isn't your fault at all.

A series of interesting recent studies by the world-renowned Cornell University Food and Brand Lab serves to show that your environment is impacting your eating habits in weird and wonderful ways that you aren't aware of.

Consider this: you're waiting in a kitchen for someone, and on the breakfast bar sits bowls of cookies, crackers and carrots. Whether or not you snack healthily may depend solely on how cluttered or clean the kitchen happens to be.

In fact, during a 10-minute window, those in the cluttered kitchens ate twice as many cookies as those in ordered surroundings. In 10 minutes!

"There's a couple of things going on when we are around clutter," Brian Wansink explains. He heads up the Food and Brand Lab, a leading behavioural economist, food psychologist, and the author of 2013's Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.

"One explanation is there's a stress component, but we find you can actually de-stress people so it doesn't really influence them that much," Dr Wansink said.

"What we have a harder time getting rid of is the priming effect, which is the idea that you say, 'Geez, you know, the entire world seems out of control, so why do I have to be in control?'"

Your mood can influence how you eat

Being surrounding by clutter can negatively influence mood - which leads one to choose unhealthy snacks. Surprisingly, it only takes a slight mood shift to tip the scales.

"We did a really cool set of studies about a year ago that showed that when you're not in a good mood, it leads you to snack worse," Dr Wansink explains.

"You can say, 'Yeah obviously if you're depressed you'll eat a lot worse than if you're happy' - but it's the lack of extremes that are interesting; it's very small changes on the margins that made a huge difference.

"So I think having a cluttered environment - insofar as it brings a person down a little bit - becomes the driver that will lower your mood."

Conversely, another study of 497 diners across 60 restaurants found that patrons were four times more likely to order desserts, and drank 17 per cent more alcohol, when being served by an overweight waiter.

As with the cluttered kitchen, it's unconscious cues we pick up on that lead to a similar "to hell with it" attitude, but it derives from almost the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.

The hedonism comes from a place of contentment rather than a lack of control.

"A person will think, 'Hey, you know I'm not really that bad off'," explains Dr Wansink. "'I might be a few pounds overweight, but look at this guy. He's a big guy, I'm not that big - let me loosen up a little bit'."

Dr Wansink notes these studies were carried out in Canada and North America, where tipping is a big element. This leads to waitstaff being generally more pleasant, which further impacts your decision to cut loose.

"You're not gonna get a fat, dour waiter," Dr Wansink explains. "You're gonna get a fat, really happy waiter. He's going to be trying hard. So, all of a sudden you're thinking, 'Hey, he's a heavy guy, he's a happy guy, and if he's happy - and I'm skinnier than he is - what do I have to be worried about?'"

As the study also notes, people aren't going to restaurants in order to strictly enforce a diet, which means the deck is stacked against them further. Defences are down.

We are stupid enough to trick ourselves

Dr Wansink cites an earlier study where they found people generally aim to eat slightly healthier than usual at a restaurant - a modest and flexible goal most of us find a way of bending.

"They aren't saying, 'I'm gonna throw in the towel and eat ribs and ice cream' - no, they want to eat a little healthier than usual. But they don't want to eat healthy."

So, if everything in our lives is working in tandem to chip away at our willpower, does being aware of this unconscious sabotage help?

"Absolutely not," Dr Wansink concludes. Humans are incredibly bad at realising we are being influenced, even when aware of the potential triggers. Unfortunately, we are just stupid enough to be able to trick ourselves.

"In one of these studies, I'd asked people afterwards if they thought they were influenced by the music, or what the person was doing next to them, or the size of a plate, or the distance of a candy dish, and only 6 per cent of people who were influenced actually believed that they were.

Unfortunately, we are just stupid enough to be able to trick ourselves. Photo / iStock
Unfortunately, we are just stupid enough to be able to trick ourselves. Photo / iStock

"About 30 per cent said, 'No, I wasn't influenced, but I could see how other people could be influenced, but I wasn't', and about 60 per cent said, 'No, I can't see how anyone could be influenced by that'.

"So awareness is not the key in these cases. I've shown bartenders how they over-pour in the wide glasses versus the tall, skinny glasses, and even two minutes later when we have them pour again, they will over-pour in the wide glasses.

"So instead, it's simply changing your environment so it works for you rather than against you. In that bar, it's eliminating the wide glasses."

This makes sense. If we cannot control our reaction to the environment, then controlling the environment itself seems like the solution. The problem is - of course - that there are many environments we simply cannot change.

"What you can do is limit the flexibility you have," he suggests. "It would be ridiculous for us to tell restaurants to only hire skinny people. But, knowing there are a ton of things in a restaurant that are gonna mess us up, whether it be where we are seated, the way the menu is laid out, the size of the waiter, the way they describe things - what we can do is set a couple of ground rules before we leave, so that we are not going to be bumped in an unwanted direction without being aware of it, or without having given ourselves permission."

Of course, it might be easier to just order dessert.

- news.com.au

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