Bright Light Alerts Us to Order Healthy Foods

Which is best for eating well, dimly lit ambience or a bright and cheery room? New research tackles the dynamics of eating and lighting.
Our brains are such mischievous things … they really seem to have minds of their own. We can tell them one thing, and then they just go ahead and do whatever they want; they’re like the teenagers of the organ family.
Psychology study after psychology study shows that we are subject to so many little influences that can sway us in one way or another, all unbeknownst to us. When it comes to eating, these influences are really good to understand, given that how we fuel our bodies is paramount to our health and wellbeing. And especially because there seems to be a giant disconnect between what our brains tell us to eat and what our bodies really need. My brain often whispers “cookies, cookies, cookies” into my ear; my body doesn’t necessarily agree.
And all of this is why I adore the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Director Brian Wansin kand his team of merry university researchers toss psychology, food science, nutrition, marketing and a bunch of other disciplines into the pot to cook up fun studies that always leave feeling a little smarter for having read them. They are the brains behindThe Mystery of the Cabinet Castaway: Why We Buy Products We Never Use and Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments, in which we learn that, basically, a cluttered kitchen leads to indulgent snacking.
In their latest, they team up with Dipayan Biswas, PhD, from the University of South Florida to shine a light on how lighting affects what and how we eat, noting that dining in dimly lit restaurants has been linked to eating slowly and ultimately eating less than in brighter restaurants, but does lighting also impact how healthfully we order?
Dining in well-lit rooms increases your chances of ordering healthy foods by 16-24% than when dining in dimly lit rooms, finds a new research to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research.
“We feel more alert in brighter rooms and therefore tend to make more healthful, forward-thinking decisions,” explains lead author Dipayan Biswas, PhD, University of South Florida.
First, the researchers surveyed 160 restaurant patrons at 4 casual chain restaurant locations. Half of those diners, who were seated in brighter rooms, were more likely to choose healthier options (such as grilled/baked fish, vegetables or white meat) over relatively unhealthy items (such as fried food or dessert). Furthermore, sales records showed that those in dimly lit rooms actually ordered 39% more calories! In four additional lab studies involving 700 college-aged students in total, the researchers replicated these results.
The follow-up studies also showed that when diners’ alertness was increased with the use of a caffeine placebo or by simply giving a prompt to be alert, those in dimly lit rooms were just as likely as their peers in brightly lit rooms to make more healthful food choices. From this, the researchers conclude that the main reason that we make healthier choices in well-lit spaces is because we feel more alert.
Lighting is used to create ambience and enhance the dining experience, which is why many restaurants have dim lights. “Dim lighting isn’t all bad,” says co-author Brian Wansink, PhD, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, “despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more.” So, what’s the real take-away here? According to Dr. Wansink, doing what you can to make yourself feel alert is the best way to avoid overindulging when “dining-in-the-dark.”