6 Environmental Tweaks that Encourage a Healthy Weight


Willpower is like a muscle– overdo it and it gets tired and begins to fail. Many people try to rely on willpower entirely when working to maintain or achieve a healthy weight. Relying on willpower without attention to environmental tweaks that lighten the motivational load can be challenging to say the least. The topic of how environment affects food choices is one of my favorite subjects to understand, research (I did my Masters thesis on worksite environments) and share. One of the foremost researchers in this area (whose studies are the basis for several of my recommendations) is Dr. Brian Wansink from Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab. Here are 6 environmental/behavioral tips that you can use to keep your willpower going strong in order to achieve your body composition goals. 

1.     Choose smaller plates over larger ones.

WHY: If your go-to, at-home plates are large, you may want to consider investing in some new china. Studies have found that slimmer diners tend to eat off of small plates (think 9-10 inches in diameter). In a study by Brian Wansink and his team at Cornell Food and Brand Lab, the team compared slim Chinese Food buffet-goers and overweight buffet-goers. They found that the slimmer diners chose smaller plates in addition to both sitting further from the buffet as well as turning their backs to the buffet.

2.     Choose plates that contrast the color of your food.

WHY: It appears that plates matching the color of food (think pasta on white plates) lead to larger servings and, thus more calories. In another study done by the team at Cornell, researchers found that people, who ate off plates that were the same color as their food, served themselves 18% more than people whose plate color contrasted their meal color (think white pasta on red plates).

3.     Remove food items from your counter… Except fruit.

WHY: If you can see a food item, you are more likely to eat it (or drink it). In a study that looked inside the homes of people living in Syracuse, NY, Wansink and his team discovered that people with breakfast cereal on the counter weighed 21 pounds more than those without cereal in sight. People with crackers or chips on the counter weighed 8 pounds more, people with diet soda on the counter weighed 24 pounds more, people with regular cola on the counter weighed 29 pounds more and people with cookies on the counter weighed 9 pounds more. By contrast, people who had fruit on the counter weighed 7 pounds less than their neighbor without fruit on the counter. Bottom line, food should stay off the counter (except for fruit of course).

4.     Do not eat anything out of a jar, bag or box.

WHY: There is no formal research recommendation that I know of around this tip (although I am sure some study exists). This is a simple tactic that I have spoken to clients about to encourage mindful eating. People have realized, once they incorporated this tactic, that they tend to eat less when they take a serving of food and place it in a dish. The second part of this tip is to sit down and eat the food rather than standing up or eating in the kitchen (sorry to disappoint any of you who were under the impression that calories don’t count so long as you’re eating over the sink). First of all, this simple rule encourages mindful eating. Second, the dish provides a visible stopping point in which a person must make a conscious choice about whether or not to get another serving.

5.     Keep healthy foods in-sight, while moving less nutritious options out of view.

WHY: If healthier foods are at eye-level, you are more likely to choose those foods. On the contrary, you are less likely to choose junk food if it is out of view or (better yet) not around. In another Brian Wansink study (Cornell Food and Brand Lab), participants were asked to move fruit and vegetables from the crisper drawer to eye level and move less healthy options to the crisper drawer. In one week’s time, participants ate three times more fruit and vegetables than they had eaten the previous week.

6.     Use taller (rather than wider) wine glasses and set your glass down to pour.

WHY: In a study that looked at 85 wine drinkers during a happy hour event, Wansink and his team found that those who drank out of taller glasses tended to drink 12% less wine than people who drank out of wider glasses that held the same amount (each glass held 10 ounces). Basically, people tend to focus on height of a pour rather than width, which leads them to drink more in a wider glass. People also tend to pour 12% less wine into a glass that is sitting on the table as opposed to a glass when they hold it. Finally, people pour roughly 9% less red wine than white wine due to the greater visibility of red.

These tips only begin to scratch the surface of the research that is currently being conducted to understand how environment affects behavior. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend Wansink’s book Slim By Design (it’s even available on Audible.com for those of you who have a commute or like to listen to books during a workout). You can also check out the Cornell Food and Brand Lab website.


Wansink, Brian, Ph.D. Slim By Design. HarperCollinsPublishers. New York, NY. 2014.