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If You Want To Lose Weight, Hack Your Living Environment Like Skinny People

One of the most useful pieces of knowledge to come from behavioral science of the past few years is this: to change ourselves, we’re wise to change our environments. Much of the self-improvement industry is focused on ways to cattle prod our willpower into healthier habits. Behavioral psychologists, on the other hand, have conducted a wealth of research showing that skillful hacks to our homes and offices can produce results that tweaks to willpower, however forceful, rarely make stick.

One of the leading behavioral scientists in this camp is Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of the book “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life”.  Wansink and his team have been conducting studies on the behavioral differences between healthy and unhealthy people – specifically, what’s different about their living environments that accounts for differences in their waistlines. In a recent review of his research in New Scientist magazine, he says,


“My latest research has found subtle ways to tweak our homes, workplaces, schools, restaurant dining and grocery shopping so we mindlessly eat less instead of more.”

By “mindlessly eat”, Wansink means that we can subtly alter elements of our environments to automatically eat in ways that result in losing weight and generally being healthier.

In one study, he and his team wanted to find out if the color of a dinner plate would influence the number of calories ingested in a meal. Sixty people were invited to a free pasta lunch and given either a red plate or a white plate. Half the people were directed to the marinara pasta buffet (red sauce); half to the Alfredo pasta buffet (white sauce). The researchers then sneakily weighed the plates of each person after they served themselves, and found that those whose plate color matched the pasta color dished up about 18 percent more calories than those whose plates contrasted with the colors of the food.

This is the sort of simple and deceptively powerful hack that we can employ in our homes to change how we eat. Are you trying to cut down on how much starchy (white) foods you and your family members shovel in? Buy a set of dark dinner plates and let the hack roll.

Here’s another that Wansink discusses: take a good look at your kitchen counters and survey how many boxes and bags of snacks you have lined up. His team found that people living in homes with open bags of potato chips and boxes of cereal on counters weighed significantly more than their neighbors who kept these foods out of sight. This result holds true even if the amount of snacks in the homes is roughly the same. It all comes down to placement – if the goodies are in sight, you’ll be tempted to eat more of them, and, according to Wansink’s research, you’ll likely do just that.

“If you’re looking to shed some weight, putting away the snacks and cereal is no guarantee things will change overnight, but it might just tilt the scales in the right direction,” he writes.

A similar principle applies to the placement of food at meals. His team found that families who place dinner items on a stove or counter, versus placing them on the dinner table, ate about 19 percent less per meal. The simple act of making people get up to serve themselves instead of having the food in arms-reach reduces how much goes into the mouth.

This hack can work the other way for things that we’d like to eat more of, like salads and vegetable dishes. Placing those items on the table will automatically encourage more “mindless eating” of healthy calories.

Wansink’s research extends to going out to eat as well. No matter how skillfully we manage our home environments, going to restaurants just a couple of times a week can result in eating excessively and undoing our gains. The research in this area is still in the works, but his team has already uncovered some interesting findings. According to Wansink: “This is preliminary, but so far it looks like people ordered healthier foods if they sat by a window or in a well-lit part of the restaurant.”

Other findings include: people sitting the farthest away from the front of the restaurant are 73 percent less likely to order a salad and more likely to order dessert. The closer you sit to a TV screen, the more likely you are to order fried foods. And if you sit within a couple of tables from a bar, you’ll drink an average of three more beers or glasses of booze than people just one table further away.

All of this may sound surprising, or even offensive, since we like to think of ourselves as immune to intangibles. But if there’s anything that behavioral science has taught us it’s that we are enormously susceptible to environmental influences, much more than we realize. From morning until night, we are affected by imperceptibles at home, at work, and virtually anywhere else we go. What Wansink’s research tells us is that the more we understand  how we’re influenced, the more we can subtly change elements of our lives to change the outcomes.

If you are frustrated by wrestling with willpower, I recommend reading more about Wansink’s research and putting a few environmental hacks into effect. Think of it as working smarter instead of harder.

You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website daviddisalvo.org.

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