Cornell University researcher Brian Wansink has made a name for himself examining how the eating environment affects food intake. He has demonstrated that bigger portions lead to greater consumption, that visual cues stimulate food intake, and that drinking fine wine with food increases satisfaction with the entire meal.
The focus of his latest research was the impact of white tablecloths and mood lighting on diners at fast-food restaurants, and the results were surprising.
Fast-food restaurants are bright, loud and noisy, an atmosphere that leads to shorter stays and faster eating. Wansink shook up that environment by refitting half a Hardee’s restaurant with white tablecloths, indirect lights, plants, candles and table service. Lunchtime customers were randomly assigned to either the traditional or the revamped area. Both groups ordered similar food.
Diners in the higher-end environment took more time to eat, as expected, but, surprisingly, ate less. They left more food on their plates, consuming an average of 133 fewer calories. At the same time, they rated the food more highly than the diners in the fast-food area. So they liked the food more but ate less.
These were not the expected results. Usually, a slower meal translates to more calories. Interviews with the diners indicated that as they slowly ate, the food tended to lose its appeal and they stopped eating. Most of the items at a fast-food restaurant are loaded with calories, so perhaps the diners had enough time to register their feelings of fullness.
This is interesting stuff for nutrition nerds, and I see a few take-away messages: Enjoying healthy food is paramount, so make the home dining experience as pleasant as possible. No TV, electronic devices or loud music. Try conversation as entertainment. Lingering over a meal is fine, but clear the serving dishes from the table to prevent mindless grazing.
Sheah Rarback is a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.