Cornell study validates the ‘See food (and eat it)’ diet…and why out of sight is out of mind

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Dr Brian Wansink. Picture:
Dr Brian Wansink. Picture:
It’s a joke emblazoned on a thousand t-shirts and coffee mugs (I’m on the See-food diet… I see food, and I eat it…). But could we learn something from it? Apparently so, says a new study from Cornell University, revealing that the foods we leave out on our kitchen countertop are a surprisingly strong indicator of our body mass index (BMI), especially for women.

Part two of the study – an analysis of 210 kitchens in Syracuse, New York – showed that women who kept fresh fruit out in the open tended to be a normal weight compared with their peers; while those with a ready supply of soda, snacks and boxed cereals to graze on were significantly heavier.

(Part one involved asking a nationwide sample of 500 households to inventory their kitchen and provide their height and weight.)

“It’s your basic See-Food Diet – you eat what you see​,” said Dr Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Health Education and Behavior​. 

 “Cereal has a health-halo, but if you eat a handful every time you walk by, it’s not going to make you skinny,”​ added Dr Wansink, who said that when unhealthy options are the most visible, it’s easier to lose control over your calorie intake and harder to maintain control of your weight.

"If energy-rich foods are visible and conveniently available in the home kitchen, household members’ BMI are likely to be high."

‘If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do’

Simply keeping those foods out of sight in cupboards makes them less convenient/accessible, and makes it less likely that they will be grabbed in a moment of hunger or boredom, said Dr Wansink who also found that normal-weight women were more likely to have a designated cupboard for snack items and less likely to buy food in large-sized packages than those who are obese.

While the findings will likely not come as a surprise to many people, they suggest that consciously replacing unhealthy cues with healthy ones in the home could have a real impact on a person’s BMI, especially for women, say the paper's authors, who note that it is well established that "proximity and visibility of food have been shown to contribute to the quantity of food consumed at settings such as workplaces, cafeterias, and school lunchrooms".

Dr Wansink added: “We’ve got a saying in our lab: If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do. If skinny people make their homes ‘Slim by Design’ by clearing the counters of everything but the fruit bowl, it won’t hurt us to do the same.”

As for limitations of the study, the authors explain that researchers did not open fridges or cupboards where easily accessible foods could have been stored, but note that, "When in a hurry, an individual is more prone to grab an easily accessible item in plain view."

We have completely lost track of how much we’re eating

Dr Wansink - author of the best-seller ‘Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think’ – has written more than 100 academic articles and books highlighting the fact that constant grazing, poor portion control, and ‘mindless eating’ is thwarting weight management efforts.

Dr Jim Painter, RD, professor at the school of family and consumer sciences at Eastern Illinois University, has also conducted research showing that simple things such as keeping unhealthy foods out of reach, and choosing foods that require more effort to unwrap/prepare, can make people become more ‘mindful’ about eating.

As to how Americans got so fat, so fast, said Dr Painter at the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo last year, it’s not rocket science: Food is everywhere, it’s in larger portions, and we have completely lost track of how much we’re eating.

While other factors such as sedentary lifestyles and stress were clearly factors, we’ve been stressed and pretty sedentary for 20 years, he argued, “so that’s not what’s changed”.

To read Dr Wansink’s study in full, click HERE​.  

Source​: Health Education & BehaviorSlim by Design: Kitchen Counter Correlates of Obesity​, ​published online on October 19, 2015 doi:10.1177/1090198115610571

Authors: ​Brian Wansink, PhD; Andrew S. Hanks, PhD; and Kirsikka Kaipainen, PhD.

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