The tricky ways lighting affects healthy food choices

CC BY 2.0 松岡明芳/Wikimedia Commons

Which is best for eating well, dimly lit ambience or a bright and cheery room? New research tackles the dynamics of eating and lighting.

Our brains are such mischievous things … they really seem to have minds of their own. We can tell them one thing, and then they just go ahead and do whatever they want; they’re like the teenagers of the organ family.

Psychology study after psychology study shows that we are subject to so many little influences that can sway us in one way or another, all unbeknownst to us. When it comes to eating, these influences are really good to understand, given that how we fuel our bodies is paramount to our health and wellbeing. And especially because there seems to be a giant disconnect between what our brains tell us to eat and what our bodies really need. My brain often whispers “cookies, cookies, cookies” into my ear; my body doesn’t necessarily agree.

And all of this is why I adore the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Director Brian Wansink and his team of merry university researchers toss psychology, food science, nutrition, marketing and a bunch of other disciplines into the pot to cook up fun studies that always leave feeling a little smarter for having read them. They are the brains behind The Mystery of the Cabinet Castaway: Why We Buy Products We Never Use and Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments, in which we learn that, basically, a cluttered kitchen leads to indulgent snacking.

In their latest, they team up with Dipayan Biswas, PhD, from the University of South Florida to shine a light on how lighting affects what and how we eat, noting that dining in dimly lit restaurants has been linked to eating slowly and ultimately eating less than in brighter restaurants, but does lighting also impact how healthfully we order?

The researchers conclude that those dining in well-lit rooms are about 16 to 24 percent more likely to order healthy foods than those in dimly lit rooms.

Why, because diners are more alert when the lights are on high. “We feel more alert in brighter rooms and therefore tend to make more healthful, forward-thinking decisions,” says Biswas.

During the study they found that diners seated in brighter rooms were more likely to choose things like grilled fish, vegetables or white meat rather than items like fried food or dessert. Sales records from the experiment showed that those in dimly lit rooms actually ordered 39 percent more calories. All of this was confirmed in multiple lab studies involving 700 college-aged students in total. They also found that when diners’ alertness was bumped up by the use of a caffeine placebo or by receiving a prompt to be alert, the eaters in dimly lit rooms were just as likely as those in brightly lit rooms to make healthier choices.

But fortunately, it’s not all bad news for dining in romantic restaurants. “Dim lighting isn’t all bad,” says Wansink, “despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more.”

So how to get the best of both worlds? Learn to trick your roguish brain by focusing on being alert when making food choices, then indulge in the long candle-lit eating of your not-fried-food-and-dessert dinner.

The tricky ways lighting affects healthy food choices
Which is best for eating well, dimly lit ambience or a bright and cheery room? New research tackles the dynamics of eating and lighting.

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