Food Ambiance

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Traditional restaurant settings relax you and increase your enjoyment of meals. As a result, you stay longer and end up more. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., of the and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois, demonstrated this when he created a dining room within a fast-food restaurant. The room that was created had curtains, tablecloths, soft music, indirect light and table service. People randomly invited to eat in the new dining room stayed for about 43 minutes, over 50 percent longer than the typical 27 minutes for the regular fast-food diner. And while they ended up eating about 20 percent less of their main meal, a whopping 60 percent ordered dessert when asked — negating any calories saved by eating less of their main course.

Menus are designed to tempt us, taunt us and get us to buy more. According to Wansink, reading the menu doubles the likelihood that you’ll order dessert — so think twice about your reply to the ubiquitous question, “Would you like to see a dessert menu?” If you do feel like having dessert, give yourself a few minutes for the main course to settle; you might end up skipping it or at the very least ordering something lower in calories. Also be wary of extras on the menu, like fatty appetizers and fancy, high-calorie drinks.

Servers are trained to use colorful, enticing language to describe dishes. Their tips are based on a percentage of food sales, plus they often get bonuses if they sell the most non-entree items: appetizers, drinks (“liquid calories”) or desserts. For example, instead of just saying, “Hey, would you like something to drink?” the server might ask, “We have a superb chardonnay that goes beautifully with your halibut — may I get you a glass?”

The tendency for us to get “sold” on consuming more than normal is especially high when it comes to dessert. Perhaps the conversation is lively and you want to continue to enjoy the “good company,” or maybe you don’t want to make your dessert-ordering guest uncomfortable, or you get sucked in by a friend or family member pushing you to “share.” Just say no. Wansink suggests putting in a “stop order” with the server — tell him or her you don’t want dessert and he or she shouldn’t even bother with the menu or dessert cart.

Recent physiological evidence suggests that seeing a tempting food can enhance hunger by increasing the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, Wansink adds.

In other words, seeing the dessert makes you want it. Just look at this quote from National Restaurant Association’s “How To Teach Servers How to Sell” training guide ( “Don’t just tell customers about your food and beverages: Show them. For example, bring a dessert tray to the table so customers can see the decadent choices. It’s a lot harder to refuse ‘Chocolate-Raspberry Truffle Cake’ once you’ve seen it up close. In addition, when bringing desserts out to customers, servers can stop along the way at a couple of their other tables to point out the items.”

Take control of your meal instead of letting it control you.

If you listen to fast music, you end up eating faster. However, when you listen to slow music, you decrease your chewing intensity, and you enjoy your food more. “Your nervous system slows down. You’re more relaxed and simply eat slower. Yet, you can end up eating more because you sit at the table longer,” says Nanette Stroebele, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Colorado’s Center for Human Nutrition. “But even if you sit longer, eating slower still has an advantage because it gives your brain a chance to recognize that your body has actually consumed food. Otherwise you might keep eating even though you’re not hungry,” adds Stroebele. Pay attention to the music at restaurants, and remember you might be sitting for longer than you normally would.

“Colors seem to have an effect on not only mood but also biological processes — increasing blood pressure or producing heat, hunger or thirst,” says Stroebele.

Brightly colored rooms create angst or tension and are used to encourage quick dining, while muted colors are calming. “The choice of color depends on whether the restaurant is aiming to increase consumption by increasing turnover or by encouraging greater consumption by each patron,” says Lisa Klein Pearo, Ph.D., a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y.

Ah, the aroma of good food! Smell enhances our tasting experience. In fact, studies in nursing homes found that adding great-smelling foods to a menu increased consumption. “Simply seeing or smelling a favorable food can increase reported hunger and stimulate salivation, which can be correlated with greater consumption,” says Wansink. Aromatic food can jump-start your taste buds. This might translate to you eating too much regardless of how hungry you are.

GO LIGHT Research shows that bright light can cause you to eat faster and is typically used in fast-food settings, where you can consume large amounts of high calorie foods quickly. We also tend to eat more, but for different reasons, in the more romantic, dimmer light. It seems that the low light decreases our inhibition for eating as well as reducing our ability to pay attention to what we’re eating, says Stroebele. How many times have you gone to the movies and felt more comfortable munching popcorn because no one was looking? Make sure to maintain focus and awareness of what you’re eating when the lights go dim, reminds Stroebele.

“People consume more during prolonged cold temperatures than during hot temperatures because of the body’s need to regulate its core temperature. In prolonged cold temperatures, more energy is needed to warm and maintain the body; therefore, more food is eaten. In prolonged hot temperatures, the body must be cooled and maintained; therefore, more liquids must be consumed,” says Wansink. Try raising the temperature of the room to help you eat less. You’ll probably want to drink more fluids, but be careful — don’t drink more liquid calories, warns Wansink. Stick to calorie-free or very low-calorie beverages such as diet sodas, water and unsweetened iced tea.

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