Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
Strategies for Snacking Success
Keeping food in a visible and convenient location leads to the most overeating
Convenience has more of an effect on overeating than does visibility
People tend to overestimate how much they eat when the food is convenient, and underestimate how much they eat when it is inconvenient
It’s easy to find yourself mindlessly snacking on food that’s right in front of you, but if you’re trying to resist the temptation of irresistible eats, what’s a better strategy: moving the food out of sight or out of reach?
A study by Brian Wansink and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers James Painter and Julie Hieggelke found that when candy dishes were both visible and convenient, office workers ate 5.6 more chocolates each day than when dishes were visible but inconvenient, and 2.9 more than when dishes were convenient but not visible. In other words, while both actions led to a decline in consumption, moving food to an inconvenient location cut consumption more than placing it in a concealed (but easily accessible) location.
“When a tasty treat is within reach, it’s easy to snack away because it requires minimal effort on your end,” explains Painter, “If it’s across the room, you have to stand up, walk over, and grab a piece-- which proves to be more of a hassle.”The three-week study, published in Appetite, examined 16 office workers in a university setting who were each given a closed container holding 30 chocolate candy “kisses.” At the beginning of each week, the candy container was moved to one of three locations: on top of the desk (visible and convenient), inside the desk drawer (convenient but not visible), and on a shelf two meters away (visible but inconvenient). Every evening, researchers took note of how many candies were eaten. Participants filled out a questionnaire about their candy consumption habits at the end of the three weeks.
Researchers found that convenience contributed to overeating more than visibility did; on an average day, workers with candies on their desk consumed 2.9 more than those who had the container in their desk and 5.6 more than those who had to walk two meters to reach them. Interestingly, they also found that when the dish was right in front of them, workers overestimated their consumption by 13%; meanwhile, when it was further away they underestimated their consumption by 63%.
These findings tell us people tend to take food’s visibility and convenience into account when estimating their consumption. Dietary researchers should keep this in mind when performing consumption recall studies to avoid bias.
The good news? If you’re trying to up your intake of fruits and vegetables, you may find that this phenomenon works in your favor. Keep healthy foods close at hand and in plain sight to effortlessly increase your consumption of vitamins and fiber. As for those guilty pleasures? “Move them to a less convenient location, like across the room in your office or in a high cabinet in the kitchen,” says coauthor Brian Wansink, Ph.D, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design, “You can still access them whenever you want, but you may find yourself eating less.”
This study was self-funded and conducted at the University of Illinois, former location of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.