Let’s face it, inertia coupled with familiarity is a mighty force and often more than a match for our willpower when it comes to behavior change. This is why lifestyle modification has such a poor long-term record.
Perhaps we should take another approach and do what humans have been doing for ages–modifying our environment to satisfy our needs.
It isn’t that modifying behavior doesn’t produce results; we know it works! Healthy diet and physical activity are excellent at preventing disease and often effective at treating it.
It is our ability to change our behavior that is problematic. Which led a group of researchers to consider that changing our environment as a covert way to induce behavior change may be more acceptable and hence have a greater chance of long-term success than a frontal assault on our behavior. Think of sneaking vegetables into casseroles as a way to increase children’s vegetable intake without them knowing it.
Brian Wansink, PhD, of Cornell University, presented his finding on environment and behavior at one of the keynote talks at the American Association of Diabetes Educators annual meeting. Wansink, who was executive director for the Center for Nutrition policy and Promotion in Washington and one of the researchers on the US Dietary Guidelines committee, and his team have been conducting research into how environmental factors affect food choice and quantity.
They found that making small changes to our eating environment can have benefits for our waistlines without too much angst on our part.
The example we are all familiar with is plate size. If you use a 12 inch dinner plate, you are likely to fill it with more food than if you use a 9 inch plate. The smaller the plate, the smaller the portions (up to a point—if your plate is too small, you end up getting seconds).
Shape also counts, apparently. Wansink conducted an experiment using experts in the field of beverages—bartenders. The bartenders were asked to pour a shot into two types of glasses, one a wide-based short glass (the type old fashions are served in) and the other a tall, narrow glass (your basic zombie glass, the type daiquiris come in).
During each repetition the bartenders unconsciously filled the wider glass more than the tall one. And they did this even after they were shown they were doing it, even when they were concentrating on making the pourings equal.
Now this may cause you to request short, fat glasses whenever you order a cocktail, but the real take home is that it may be better to pour high calorie, high carb beverages such as juice into tall, narrow glasses.
Finally the order and attractiveness of presentation also make a difference. In an experiment involving school lunch, Wansink was able to increase the purchase of healthful foods and decrease the purchase of less healthy foods just by making the healthful ones easier to buy vis-à-vis the others.
Fruit in one cafeteria was placed at the end of the serving line in the back of the counter in a metal bin. A different cafeteria featured the fruit in a prettier bowl at the front of the line. The nicer placement and presentation increased sales of fruit by 54 percent.
All of these “tricks” you can use in your home to improve the quality of your and your family’s diet. It may not work miracles, but small painless changes can add up over time. As Dr. Wansink says, “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”