If a nice restaurant beckons you to linger with comfortable music and lighting, it seems likely you might order more food and eat more. Not so, according to a new study. It turns out, somewhat surprisingly, diners in a relaxed environment spend more time at the restaurant but eat fewer calories while enjoying their food more.
The study was published in Psychological Reports and co-authored by Cornell University researcher Brian Wansink, an expert in how environmental cues affect our eating habits.
Previous research has shown music and lighting influence how long diners stay in a restaurant or store. The bright lights and noise typical of many fast food restaurants leads to eating relatively quickly, for example.
Wansink and his colleague hypothesized that a relaxed atmosphere would lead to longer meals, ordering more food and eating more. They set about testing how environmental cues influence diners by using two restaurant settings with contrasting atmospheres.
The researchers started with a fast-food restaurant (Hardees) that had two separate sections. One area they left unchanged, complete with bright lights, colors and loud music. The second area was given a fine dining makeover: complete with soundproofing, soft lighting, plants, candles, white tablecloths, and jazz.
Then about 60 diners were randomly seated in one of the two settings.
Whether eating in the fine dining or fast food setting, restaurant-goers ordered similar foods. Similar to previous research, the fine diners here stayed slightly longer. But when the researchers weighed the diners’ leftovers, they found those in the fine dining area ate less (more food waste). On average, the fine diners ate 775 calories and the fast food diners ate 949 calories.
After their meal, the fine diners rated their food as tasting better than those in the loud, bright area.
The findings indicate that lingering over a meal may make the food lose its immediate appeal, note the authors, making a diner more attune to hunger cues rather than external cues.
Whether you go to a fast food or fine dining restaurant, look here for some tips that can help you choose healthier foods.