If you keep choosing cheese curls over biceps curls, your home could have a lot to do with it. “Your habits are more tied to your environment than you know,” says psychologist Jeremy Dean, the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits ($26, amazon.com). Eat enough chips on the couch, for instance, and you’ll automatically associate couch time with chip time. Our routines are so influenced by environmental cues that research shows it’s easier to change our habits in a novel setting. “We see major shifts in behavior when people move to a new house,” says Dean. But you don’t have to relocate to start anew; you just need to become aware of the subtle cues that say “cake!” and replace them with healthy alternatives. “The typical person makes about 200 food-related decisions a day, but she believes she makes 25 to 30. And it’s those 175 that you’re not aware of that can push you to eat more,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and the author of the upcoming book Slim by Design ($27, amazon.com). Here’s how to help your home help you get (or stay) slender.
* Yes, that’s a real word. It means “causing obesity,” and it was added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 2012.
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In the Kitchen
Rearrange the Food
“We find that people are three times as likely to take the first thing they see when they open the cupboard than the fifth thing they see,” says Wansink, whose team has conducted extensive research on the psychology behind what we eat. So exile the double-chocolate decadence to the darkest corner of the cabinet and put the quinoa snacks up front.
Same with the refrigerator: Keep the cucumber slices and the minted pea dip in clear containers at eye level, and stash last night’s leftover mac and cheese in an opaque container toward the back of the shelf. (Cover it with foil instead of plastic wrap while you’re at it.) “Hide and eat less” even works with candy. Wansink’s team observed that people dip into candy bowls 71 percent more frequently when the bowls are transparent than when they are white.
Buying in bulk can cause you to eat in bulk. The Cornell researchers discovered that when people put four boxes of crackers on their shelves instead of their usual two, they ate the extra boxes faster than they normally would, until they were left with the amount that they were used to having on hand. The effect was especially pronounced during the first week after stocking up, when the study subjects consumed the extra food at almost twice the normal rate. The simple solution: Keep everything you wouldn’t typically go through in a week on a high shelf or in the garage.
Ditch the Giant Containers
The big problem with a Big Gulp is that we look for external cues, like how much soda is left, to help us know how much to consume. So when a container is big, we enlarge our sense of what a normal serving size is, says Wansink. In one study from his team, people who were given popcorn in large containers ate 53 percent more than people who received medium ones—even though all the popcorn was stale.
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On the Table
Dine Off the Salad Plates
Or use your grandmother’s china. The average size of a dinner plate has mushroomed by 23 percent since 1900, and of course the amount we put on it has ballooned, too. Cornell researchers suggest that switching from 12-inch to 10-inch plates could help you consume up to 22 percent fewer calories.
Make Your Food Look Dramatic
Plate light foods on dark tableware and dark foods on light. In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Consumer Research, people served themselves more when their dishes matched the foods they were eating than when they were given contrasting plates. Since mashed potatoes are less noticeable on a white plate, we may pay less attention to how much we’re dishing out—and thus how much we’re consuming.
Set the Table Strategically
Leave the main serving dishes on the sideboard and put the salad on the table, since you’ll probably consume more of whatever you’re close to. In one study, people drank 81 percent more water when pitchers were placed next to them, not off to the side.
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In the Family and Dining Areas
Stop Eating in Front of the TV
Sacking out on the couch for dinner and a movie may feel cozy, but it can pack on the pounds. According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who ate in front of the TV consumed more and were more likely to describe their meals as unsatisfying. In a study published in the journal Appetite, women who had lunch while watching television ate more cookies afterward than did those who hadn’t eaten in front of the TV. They also remembered their lunch less vividly. Researchers believe that watching TV while we eat may interfere with our ability to encode our memory of the meal and leave us more likely to munch later.
If you tend to snack during your favorite shows, change your routine by changing the setting: Watch in the bedroom instead. (That said, sleep and sex experts don’t love bedroom TVs, so make sure you’re not trading one problem for another.)
“A cluttered, disorganized space is not conducive to good decisions,” says Peter Walsh, a professional organizer and the author of Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? ($14, amazon.com). “Ask yourself, ‘What do I want from this room?’ ” If you want your dining table to be a place where the family gathers for healthy meals, then it needs to be neat and inviting, not buried in bills and homework.
Keep the Setting Mellow
Studies have found that fast, loud music makes people eat more. A review from the University of Oxford in the journal Physiology & Behavior explains that noise may make it difficult to focus on the sensory experience of eating, which is essential to feeling satiated. Wansink has also found that brightly lit places inspire faster eating.
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In the Home Gym and the Closet
Clear Off Your Workout Equipment
Don’t use your treadmill as an extra closet. If you have to spend even a few seconds removing a pile of clothes, you’re less likely to work out. “I call this the 20-second rule,” says positive-psychology researcher Shawn Achor, the author of the forthcoming book Before Happiness ($26, amazon.com). “My research shows that if you shave even 20 seconds off the time that it takes to do something, the likelihood that you’ll do it is much greater.”
Donate Any “Fat Clothes”
“They send subtle signals that you don’t expect to keep off any weight that you've lost,” says Liz Josefsberg, the director of brand advocacy for Weight Watchers. And, obviously, if you’re wearing bigger clothes, you can’t keep tabs on your weight by keeping tabs on your waistband. You may not even register a gain without that reality check. Wansink cites a prison warden who reported that prisoners who wore loose jumpsuits realized they had gained weight only when they tried to get back into their former clothes.
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In the Hallway
Keep Your Gear in Sight
If you exercise outside or at the gym, carve out a place in your entryway for your walking shoes or fully packed gym bag; you want a visual cue that your stuff is ready when you are.
Then turn that cue into a healthy habit by creating a written plan to post next to the door, says Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit ($28, amazon.com). (For Duhigg’s handy fill-in-the-blank form, go to charlesduhigg.com.) Include the cue, the action you want to take, and a tangible reward so that your brain will make positive associations with that action. For instance: “When I come home from work and see my walking shoes [that’s the cue], I’ll take a half-hour walk [the action] and then have a nice long bath [the reward].” In a week, the behavior should start to become a new routine.