A kitchen makeover may be the first step to losing weight.
If you declutter your kitchen, you’re likely to snack about half as much, and if you don’t keep breakfast cereal on the kitchen counters, you may weigh about 20 pounds less than your neighbor who has it in plain view, says one of the nation’s top researchers on eating behavior.
“It’s easier to become slim by design than slim by willpower,” says Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and author of a new book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (slimbydesign.org). He also wrote Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
For years, Wansink been on a mission: to ferret out environmental factors that push Americans, sometimes unconsciously, to eat too much.
“We’re all mindless eaters,” he says. He has found that people make more than 200 decisions about food every day, including what and when to eat, how many bites to take of different foods and whether to get seconds. And he has shown that people typically eat most of the food, about 92%, that they put on their own plate.
Wansink has been studying eating behavior for 25 years, and he and colleagues have conducted hundreds of studies on how and why people eat. When it comes to doing a kitchen makeover, he recommends:
• Move healthier foods to visible spots. Rearrange your cupboards, pantry and refrigerator so the first foods you see are the healthy ones, Wansink says.
In one study, he and colleagues asked people to move their fruits and vegetables from the crisper bins to the top shelves of their refrigerators and move the less healthy foods to the crisper. After one week, people reported consuming nearly three times more fruits and vegetables as they did the week before. “We might think we are keeping fruits and vegetables fresher longer in the crisper, but our goal is to eat them, not compost them.”
He suggests having a bowl with two or more types of fruit in plain view in the kitchen and at work. He started doing that, and now, “I eat more fruit than Tarzan.”
• Make tempting foods invisible and inconvenient. Don’t have any foods other than fruit visible in the kitchen. That means no cereal, baked goods, chips or muffins out on the counters or table, he says.
He and fellow researchers visited more than 200 kitchens in homes and photographed them extensively, including taking pictures of the dishes, refrigerator shelves, counters and snacks. They also measured the height and weight of the person who purchased the food for the house.
Among their many findings: Women who had even one box of breakfast cereal visible anywhere in the kitchen weighed an average of 21 pounds more than those who didn’t have any cereal in plain view.
• Declutter your kitchen. His research shows that cluttered kitchens prompted people to eat 44% more of their snack food than a kitchen that was organized and decluttered. This means putting away things such as the toaster, cutting board and knives. “Where a more organized kitchen may prompt self-control, a disorganized one does the opposite.”
• Make your kitchen less friendly for lounging. The more you hang out in your kitchen, the more you’ll eat, so don’t have comfy chairs, TVs, computers or tablets in the kitchen, Wansink says.
• Think twice about buying big packages of food. His research shows that people eat more from bigger packages than smaller ones. His advice: Repackage the bigger boxes into single-serving portions.
• Use smaller serving bowls and spoons. In one study, Wansink had nutrition professors serve themselves ice cream using different-sized spoons and bowls. They ate 54% more ice cream when they used bigger bowls and spoons, “and these are people who should know better,” he says.
In another study of elementary-age campers, the children ate 42% more cereal from a 24-ounce cereal bowl than they did from a 12-ounce bowl.
• Use smaller, narrower drinking glasses. His research shows that people pour themselves more in a 16-ounce glass — the typical size of many kitchen glasses — than a 12-ounce glass. Even more surprisingly, they pour more in a 12-ounce wide glass than a 12-ounce narrow glass. To consume less of high-calorie drinks, such as soda and sugary tea, use the smaller, narrower glasses, but for things such as water, use the bigger glasses, he says.
• Serve food from the counter or the stove. In another study, he found that people ate 19% less food when they served their food from bowls on the counter or stove vs. bowls on the table. “People, especially guys, tend to serve themselves again and again when the food is right in front of them.”
• Avoid doing other activities while eating. His research shows that the more people reported watching TV during dinnertime, the higher their body mass index (a number that takes into account height and weight) of both the parent and the child.
When Wansink gave moviegoers free 5-day-old stale popcorn, they ate an average of 173 calories more from a big bucket than a medium one. Complaining that the popcorn tasted horrible, they continued to eat while watching the movie, he says. “We tend to mindlessly eat while we’re doing other activities. The cue that we are finished eating is that our food is gone.”
Rethinking your kitchen can help you reach a healthy weight, Wansink says. “Slim by design is forever; slim by willpower can be wimpy and has to last a lifetime.”