October 2, 2012

Lighting, Music Can Curtail Eating, Cornell Study Finds

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Changes in lighting and music can cause people to eat 18 percent less food than they usually do, according to a recent study conducted by researchers in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management’s Food and Brand Lab. The study showed a marked decrease in overeating when customers dined in a fast food restaurant with a relaxed ambience, softer lighting and calmer music than when they ate at a typical fast food restaurant with bright lighting and fast music.

The findings of the study –– which was conducted by Prof. Brian Wansink, marketing, and Dr. Koert van Ittersum of the Georgia Institute of Technology –– were published online in the journal Psychological Reports earlier this year.

The study argues that contrary to the popular notion that warm lighting and a relaxed atmosphere will make people linger longer and thus consume more, a gentle ambience causes customers to order the same amount of food –– but eat less of what they ordered.

According to Wansink, changes in the atmosphere of a fast food restaurant greatly cut down on mindless eating –– which is a goal of many of the Food and Brand Lab’s studies on “transformational solutions that can improve eating,” he said.

The Food and Brand Lab’s study transformed a Hardee’s fast food restaurant into two separate dining rooms, with one room modeling a typical fast food environment and the other modified to have a relaxing “fine dining” atmosphere. The scientists then analyzed the dining habits of the patrons by time spent eating, caloric quantity of food consumed and satisfaction with their meal.

In addition to decreasing diners’ intake from an average of 949 calories to 775, diners who ate with softened lighting and music reported enjoying their meal more than those who ate in the typical fast food setting.

“In the more relaxed atmosphere, people eat slower, so satiation kicks in sooner. This makes people stop eating sooner, so they overeat less,” van Ittersum said. “These restaurants blast music at the tables and use red lights, so people chow down and go on their way. When you hammer food down your throat, your body doesn’t register how much food is enough, and so you go beyond the point you need for normal levels of satiation. We suspect slowing down the consumption process is a big way to cut down on overeating.”

Emily Balcome ’16 agreed that the study’s conclusion seems logical.

“This study makes sense because in the regular atmosphere of a fast food restaurant, it’s not as comfortable and not as pleasant … I want to eat quickly, fill myself up  and leave,” Balcome said. “In the more comfortable atmosphere, I would feel more relaxed, talking to the people I’m sitting with, and wouldn’t feel the need to stuff myself and get up and leave right away.”

Van Ittersum said the results of the study could affect the way the fast food industry operates.

“There are very few downsides to creating this atmosphere,” he said. “People still order the same food and spend the same amount of money, but they enjoy the food better and leave the restaurant happier.”

Wansick echoed this sentiment, saying the study has already caused some restaurants to alter their practice.

“Smart restaurants and fast food companies we have contacted have said they will change some of their music to make it softer,” Wansick said. “There are a lot of win-win profitable that restaurants, packaged goods manufacturers and the food industry can make us healthy while also making more money. That is a win-win way that industry can help fight obesity.”

Original Author: Rachel Weber