Why Your Eating Environment Matters

By Mandy Ellis – April 1, 2016

When it comes to a healthy lifestyle, we’ve heard it’s smart to note what we eat, how much we eat, and even when we eat. But did you know that where we eat makes an impact as well? As it turns out, a tidy dining area encourages healthful eating habits while a messy, noisy space pushes you toward overeating. 

Environmental Awareness

A recent study in Environment & Behavior shows that a chaotic kitchen environment makes you vulnerable to choosing unhealthy foods. If your dining area is unkempt and loud with a multipurpose table lost underneath stress-inducing bills, you’ll be distracted and ignore your body’s natural signals. The fork-to-mouth motion becomes automatic, and this lack of food appreciation decreases satiety while increasing the amount of calories consumed. “The more fast-paced or loud the atmosphere is, the more we eat with the beat,” says Libby Mills, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This fast-food-style dining area takes away from the eating experience, and you end up eating more.

“When the environment is cluttered, such as food scattered on the counter, we mindlessly pick at the food because it’s there. When we have to be conscious and choose what to eat, we make better food and portion choices,” says Mills. Food stashed throughout a disheveled kitchen becomes a grazing ground for constant snacking. However, if these items are stored out of sight, it forces you to be mindful of a few key factors: 

1. How much are you eating overall? 

2. What portion size are you hungry for right now? 

3. Will you place the serving on a large plate or in a small bowl? 

To combat the disarray, have a relaxed, organized space designated for eating that’s similar to a sit-down restaurant with proper table settings. You don’t need high-end china or cloth napkins; a set of plain plates and silverware will work fine. A quiet, clean dining area can also help ritualize the enjoyment of food preparation. The sizzle of a pan starts the flow of digestive juices while the smell excites your taste buds. By the time you sit down, your body is ready to absorb the nutrients. You can fully appreciate the flavor and visuals, and delight in feeling full without overeating.

How a Mindful Mindset Helps

But what happens when you decide to eat out? How can you make healthier decisions in a rambunctious restaurant environment? One way is to employ mindful eating techniques. Mindful eating starts with a plan of attack, which in the case of rowdy restaurants, is critical. “Ask yourself these questions: How hungry am I? What are the healthier options that will meet my nutritional needs? What would be the healthiest, most satisfying choice?” says Mills. By creating a plan before you arrive, your mindfulness removes the dining distractions of sound, smell, sight and sales that lead to overeating. Healthy diets stay intact, and you don’t end up eating the salt-and-fat-laden burger and fries you’ve been conditioned to choose. 

Likewise, our home environments can become a nest of pandemonium. Booming video games, everyone rummaging for treats after school and work, and hustling to get the overwhelming to-do list done creates an atmosphere of poor eating choices. Having pre-portioned, ready-to-go snacks in small Ziploc bags or Tupperware offers a formalized serving while helping you stay mindful of how much you’re consuming outside of typical dining hours. Mills recommends snacks like sliced veggies with hummus, mini quesadillas (8-inch corn tortillas with low-fat cheddar cheese and salsa), and pear-ninis (whole grain bread, arugula, pear slices, and low-fat cheese), to satisfy cravings while fulfilling nutritional needs. 

Stuffing yourself because you’re surrounded by chaos not only packs on the pounds, but leaves you hungry for more. Spend a little time setting the table for dinner as well as ridding your kitchen of counter goodies and disorder. Practicing these mindful eating strategies will encourage a healthy lifestyle while keeping your mindless munching monster at bay.


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