OK fine—so we probably shouldn’t grab a soda or doughnut on our way to school. But when we’re in a hurry, sleepy, stressed, or all out of willpower, junk food is just so…there for us. What can we do about that?
In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 70 percent of students agreed that the accessibility of foods significantly influences how we eat. Science agrees, too. Our “choices” have far more to do with our environment than we realize, according to a large body of research. What we eat and drink is often our default response to the sights and smells all around us.
If our eating is driven by forces beyond our consciousness, are we helpless to change it? No. The trick is to reduce our exposure to unhealthy cues and introduce cues that help us eat healthfully. This is about tweaking our own environments—with minimal effort.
Know your environmental cues
Vending machines, packaged snacks, the oversized pizza slices in the cafeteria, the candy wrapper on the sidewalk, the burger ads that flash up on Instagram—these negative “nudges” can make unhealthful eating our default behavior, especially when we’re low on energy.
But we can flip that script by substituting positive “nudges.” When we make our options healthier, we get healthier, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Public Health.
Even small environmental tweaks can have a powerful effect on how we eat. In a famous experiment at the Google offices, researchers tried to get employees to eat fewer M&Ms® by switching the candy jar from see-through to non-see-through and making healthier snacks more visible. The experiment worked—employees ate dramatically fewer M&Ms® when they couldn’t see them as easily.
Here’s the key to developing any new habit: Make it easier to do the desired behavior and more difficult to do the undesired behavior.
Think about your eating this way:
Which eating habits do you want to change? When are they happening, and in what context?
Example: Stressed in the evenings and pining for a pint of mint chocolate chip? Need a spoonful to relax at night? Notice the patterns.
Next: How can you change that habit? How can you substitute different cues without adding work?
- Move that pint of ice cream to the back of the freezer. When we can’t see it, we probably won’t eat it, according to Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (HarperCollins, 2014), by Dr. Brian Wansink, a leading expert in eating behaviors.
- Don’t purchase the mint chocolate chip at all—or ask your parent not to. It may be easier to make one decision (“I won’t buy that this time”) than a series of decisions (“Should I eat that again?”).
- Substitute: Pack grapes or chopped veggies in your backpack.
Science-based hacks for eating healthy in your home
- Keep less-healthy foods out of sight. Store your favorite snacks, such as chips or cookies, in the back of the pantry and keep them out of your bedroom. “I find that [by] keeping food out of my bedroom, I avoid unnecessary snacking and eat healthier,” says Kristen, a student in Newfoundland, Canada. “Out of sight, out of mind.”
- Make healthier options more accessible: Ask your parent to refill the fruit bowl or keep the eye-level shelf in your refrigerator stocked with healthier foods. A study published in the Journal of Marketing Research suggested we are three times more likely to eat the first food we see in the cupboard than we are to eat the fifth food we see. “I ask my parents to buy healthier snacks and food in general. If I’m super hungry, I like to start with something healthy first and hope that fills me up,” says Sadie, a senior in Boston, Massachusetts.
- Divide large snack items (e.g., a family-size bag of chips) into smaller portions before you start munching. In a 2007 study, participants who were given snacks in large packages consumed 30–50 percent more than those who were given the same amount of food in smaller packages. Take these portioned snacks with you to school, to study, and to practice so you don’t get super hungry and binge later.
- Use narrower glasses and smaller dishes: The smaller the plate or bowl, the less you’re likely to eat, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Next time you go to make yourself a snack, try using a salad plate instead of a full-sized dinner plate.
Hacks for a restaurant
- Request a window seat: In studies, diners ordered healthier foods if they sat by a window or in a well-lit part of the restaurant. At a dark table or booth, they ordered heavier food, and more of it; close to a TV, they ordered more fried foods, writes Dr. Wansink in Slim by Design: “People sitting furthest from the front door ate the fewest salads and were 73 percent more likely to order dessert.”
- Skip the bread—or at least the butter. Ask for olive oil instead. In a study, people who were served bread with olive oil ate less bread overall. People who were served butter instead of olive oil ate far more bread, according to the International Journal of Obesity.
- In a fast food restaurant, it’s different: Find a dim corner. A 2012 study in Psychological Reports found that lowering the lighting and playing mellow music resulted in customers eating less.
- Be the last at your table to start eating. When we eat with others, we pace ourselves according to how quickly or slowly they are eating, and we match our food consumption to theirs, writes Dr. Wansink in Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam Dell, 2006).
“I try not to buy unhealthy foods and drinks, but they still usually end up in my house if my parents buy food. I just think to myself how much better it is for me to have water instead of a soda, considering the benefits versus the unhealthy effects.”
—Patrick, junior, Boston, Massachusetts
Hacks for the cafeteria
- Scan your options before selecting what to eat, then serve yourself on a salad plate rather than on a dinner plate. This helps with weight management, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Obesity.
- Watch what you’re eating—literally. In a study involving 53 students and large supplies of chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday, researchers found that when wait staff let the chicken bones pile up on the table, students ate fewer wings; when the chicken bones were removed, students kept eating. The experiment shows the association between visual cues and how much we eat, according to Perceptual and Motor Skills (2007).
- Eat with the slowbies. Eating with other slow eaters can slow down your food consumption too, according to research.
- Sit with your back to the food counter. People who sat facing the food were more likely to get up and grab seconds than were those who put temptation out of sight and out of mind, according to a 2008 study in Obesity.
- Check your mood before you self-serve. In a series of studies, when participants were in a bad mood, their food priorities shifted, choosing high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods instead of food that would fuel them up, according to the Journal of Consumer Psychology (2014). If your mood is less than stellar next time your heading into lunch, take a moment to acknowledge how you’re feeling and consciously try to fill up on something nutritious.
How to take back your food environment
Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think: Brian Wansink
Bantam Dell, 2006
Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life: Brian Wansink
Michael Moss, journalist and author, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Random House, 2013)
Sabine Haake, registered dietitian, private practice, San Francisco, California.
Alexa Schmidt, registered dietitian, Sodexo Campus Services, Binghamton University, New York
Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2002). When are stockpiled products consumed faster? A convenience-salience framework of postpurchase consumption incidence and quantity. Journal of Marketing Research, 39(3), 321–335.
Gardner, M. P., Wansink, B., Kim, J., & Park, S. B. (2014). Better moods for better eating? How mood influences food choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 320–335.
Hanks, A. S., Just, D. R., Smith, L. E., & Wansink, B. (2012). Healthy convenience: Nudging students toward healthier choices in the lunchroom. Journal of Public Health.
Kang, C. (2013, September 1). Google crunches data on munching in the office. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/google-crunches-data-on-munching-in-office/2013/09/01/3902b444-0e83-11e3-85b6-d27422650fd5_story.html
Moss, M. (2013). Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. New York, NY: Random House.
Rubin, G. (2012). Back by popular demand: Are you an abstainer or a moderator? [Blog post.] Retrieved from https://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2012/10/back-by-popular-demand-are-you-an-abstainer-or-a-moderator/
Sacks, R., Stella, S. Y., & Nonas, C. (2015). Increasing access to fruits and vegetables: Perspectives from the New York City experience. American Journal of Public Health, 105(5).
Van Ittersum, K., & Wansink, B. (2012). Plate size and color suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s bias on serving and eating behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 215–228.
Van Kleef, E., Shimizu, M., & Wansink, B. (2012). Serving bowl selection biases the amount of food served. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 44(1), 66–70.
Van Kleef, E., Shimizu, M., & Wansink, B. (2013). Just a bite: Considerably smaller snack portions satisfy delayed hunger and craving. Food Quality and Preference, 27(1), 96–100.
Wansink, B., & Linder, L. R. (2003). Interactions between forms of fat consumption and restaurant bread consumption. International Journal of Obesity, 27(7), 866–868.
Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obesity Research, 13(1), 93–100.
Wansink, B., & Payne, C. R. (2007). Counting bones: Environmental cues that decrease food intake. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 104, 273–277.
Wansink, B., & Payne, C. R. (2008). Eating behavior and obesity at Chinese buffets. Obesity, 16(8), 1957–1960.
Wansink, B., Payne, C., & North, J. (2007). Fine as North Dakota wine: Sensory experiences and the intake of companion foods. Physiology and Behavior, 90(5), 712–716.
Wansink, B., & Van Ittersum, K. (2005). Shape of glass and amount of alcohol poured: Comparative study effect of practice and concentration. British Medical Journal, 331(7531), 1512–1514.
Wansink, B., & Van Ittersum, K. (2007). Portion size me: Downsizing our consumption norms. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(7), 1103–1106.
Wansink, B., & Van Ittersum, K. (2012). Fast food restaurant lighting and music can reduce calorie intake and increase satisfaction. Psychological Bulletin, 111(1), 228–232.