What’s the first thing you do after a stressful day at work or an anxiety-provoking call from your mom? If it’s dive into a box of cookies, you’re not alone, and new research shows why.
In a recent study, participants under stress (they had to submerge their hands in ice water while being videotaped: more stressful than it sounds!) were 24 percent more likely to snack on unhealthy foods afterward than those who weren’t. According to brain scans, the stress disrupted the way different parts of the brain communicated with each other. The connection between the region that evaluates tastiness and the one focused on decision-making grew stronger, while the connection between the decision-making region and the long-term planning region grew weaker.
If you’re struggling with healthy eating, managing stress is of course a great solution. (Poor eating habits are hardly the only harmful effect of undermanaged stress.) But that’s not easy, and besides, research also shows that willpower doesn’t actually go all that far in helping us manage our diets. We’re incredibly susceptible to our environments.
It might not sound like it, but this is in fact excellent news! Why? You can get yourself to eat more healthily by just changing what’s around you. Read on for a few brilliant ways to circumvent your tendency to sabotage your food choices and portion size choices.
- Keep treats out of sight and reach. You’re much more likely to snack on food if you can see it. One study found that female office workers ate the most chocolate if it was in a clear, within-reach container, and the least chocolate if it was in an opaque, out-of-reach container. So don’t make that cookie jar glass, and definitely don’t keep it on the counter: store those goodies in a cabinet (and maybe even toward the very back)!
- Use a small plate. The bigger the serving vessel, the more you’ll eat, even if you don’t like the food all that much. So serve yourself on a small bowl or plate. If you’re genuinely hungry when you’re finished, you can always go back for more.
- Choose your plate color wisely. In one study, participants ate less cookies and popcorn when they were served on red plates. But other research shows that when the color of the food matches the color of the plate, we eat more. So go for that red plate—unless you’re eating pasta with tomato sauce.
- Pick restaurants with softer music and lighting. It won’t change what you order, but it’ll change how much you eat: research shows we eat 18 percent less in the very same restaurant if the music and lighting are softer. For that matter, try turning down the lights at the dinner table at home—and, if you’ve been blasting the tunes, turn the volume down, too!
- Train yourself with an avatar. Okay, this one’s a little more obscure. But if women play a video game in which an avatar slims down when she eats carrots and gains weight when she eats candy, they’re more likely to eat less candy. The key? The avatar has to look like the player. This also works for exercising: watching personalized avatars run on a treadmill gets us up and at ‘em, too. So if you’re a gamer, inspire yourself by customizing your avatar to look like you!