Much of our eating is mindless and automatic. That’s why environmental changes can lead us to overeat. Many argue that what’s at the root of the obesity epidemic is the transformation in our environment, which gradually changed into an obesity-promoting one.
Proximity and convenience affect food choices. Food sellers know that the closest, easiest to grab, and most noticeable food items will sell more, that’s why they place the products that they want you to buy on an eye-level shelf, near the checkout and in an open case. Previous studies have shown that when candy is placed closer and is in a clear rather than an opaque bowl, people eat more of it.
Could proximity and visibility promote good-for-you foods just as well?
Gregory Privitera and Heather Creary tested how distance and visibility affect apple and carrot consumption. Their new study appears in the Environment and Behavior Journal.
The 96 healthy students in the study were not aware that eating behavior was the purpose of the experiment, and were assigned randomly to have a bowl of the fruit or the veggie in one of these four settings:
- Within arm’s reach and in a clear bowl
- Within arm’s reach and in an opaque closed bowl
- On a table about 2 yards away in a clear bowl
- On a table about 2 yards away in an opaque closed bowl
The students watched the researcher take the food out of a sealed bag (this was done to ensure the participants knew the food’s fresh and good to eat), and the researcher then excused himself for 10 minutes, with a cover story of “I’ll be right back with some questionnaires”, and an invitation to munch on the carrots or apples.
Within arm’s reach
Leaving the apples and the carrots close, within arm’s reach of where the student sat, increased intake significantly. The transparent bowl trick worked only with apples; carrot intake wasn’t significantly increased when the bowl showed though. The researchers suggest an explanation:
“apple slices may be more visually appealing than carrots in that seeing sweet-tasting apple slices (vs. bitter-tasting carrots) induces a stronger wanting to consume those foods.”
I’m here to defend the meager carrot: carrots are generally not bitter! I wonder where the researchers got their veggies, or when they last tasted a good carrot. Carrots actually have high sugar content, and are very tasty! They’re pretty, too.
Anyway, I suppose most moms knew this intuitively, but here’s some experimental proof showing that making fruits and veggies readily available can get us closer to the minimum recommended 5-a-day.
Another thing that caught my eye in this study is the background information on the study group. The students were about 19 years of age, and their average body mass index (BMI) was about 27. A BMI of above 25 puts a person in the overweight range. The study sample is a small one, and quite random, but what we see again and again is that even among young students, being overweight has become the norm. Every year of being overweight adds to the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and that’s why the overweight and obesity epidemic among kids and young people is especially worrisome.