Environmental Cues for Food Intake – 10 Things that Prompt Us to Eat More Than We Need

With holiday season just around the corner, it seems like the right time to consider all things which prompt us to eat more than we need (and often more than we want to). Beside our physical  needs and individual psychological factors which are often discussed in this context, it’s amazing how much of our eating behavior can be explained by environmental factors.

photo by Polygon Homes

This is especially noticeable during holidays when many people gain weight inspite of their intentions. As you’ll see, the sudden change in eating behaviour most of us will experience in the following weeks can be well explained by the following 10 environmental factors:

1. The number of people present

In general, the more people present, the more food will be eaten by each person (Stroebele & De Castro, 2004).  When other people are present during meals, the influence of social norms is more prominent, and sometimes, the norm is to eat a lot (like, when my grandma is around).

photo by Emily Barney

2. Atmosphere

We eat more with people whom we know better. The relaxed atmosphere among family and friends usually increases meal duration and possibly diminishes the awareness of the amount consumed. On the other hand, when tension during meal increases, we eat less (Stroebele & De Castro, 2004).

photo by ChalonHandmade

3. Food visibility

The visibility of food within a room increases consumption  (Painter, Wansink, & Hieggelke, 2002, according to Sobal & Wansink, 2007). Since kitchens are becoming larger and less enclosed than in the previous decades (Hasell & Peatross, 1990, according to Sobal & Wansink 2007), we are today more exposed to visual cues for eating (and other sensator cues, like the smell of baking cookies or  the sound of frying potato chips).

It’s interesting that some individuals are more responsive to sensatory cues for eating than others. Ferriday &  Brunstrom (2011) found that an exposure to a pizza (the smell and sight of it) elicited a significantly greater salivary response and greater increase in desire to eat for overweight individuals compared to lean individuals.

photo by Christian Cable

4. Food accessibility

Experiments report that more accessible foods are consumed more often and in greater quantities (Engell, Kramer, Malafi, Salomon, & Lesher, 1996; , according to Sobal & Wansink 2007).  For example, moving candy bowls only 6 feet (2 meters) away in the same room reduced intake by one half and indicated that this was based less on increased effort required to move a longer distance to the food than giving people the opportunity to pause and consider whether they really wanted another piece of candy (Wansink, Painter, & Lee, 2006, according to Sobal & Wansink 2007).

photo by chrissy polcino

5. Food variety

Imagine a table full of food, but it’s all the same kind, for example, mashed potatoes. You probably wouldn’t eat much of it. We usually eat more when there’s greater diversity in foods that’s available. An example is a buffet table that offers an abundant and ample array of different foods, leading people to consume higher quantities of food (Maykovich, 1978; Stunkard & Mazur, 1978). There’s even evolutionary explanation for this. Our ancestors had greater chances of survival if they managed to eat a lot during warmer seasons when there was abundance of food available in nature, so they would gain some weight and make it through the winter when there wasn’t much food available. We inherited this tendency to eat as much as we can when we see a lot of different dishes, even though that behavior is not functional any more. For the whealthier part of the Earth’s inhabitants, there’ a variety of food available at any time, even more so during the holidays, and there’s no need to stockpile energy in our body.

photo by Craig A Rodway

6.  The number and size of serving bowls
Increasing the size of serving bowls causes dramatic rises in consumption that are often undetected by those who are serving themselves. An experiment revealed that people self-serving snacks from larger (4 quart) serving bowls took 53% more and ate 59% more than people self-serving from medium (2 quart) bowls (Wansink & Cheney, 2005). Also, when the same quantity of food is separated into more different bowls, people serve themselves more (Kahn & Wansink, 2004, according to Sobal & Wansink 2007).

photo by Sidious Sid

7. Portion size

Several experiments reveal that food intake is proportional to the portion served (e.g., Levitsky & Youn, 2004; Rolls, Roe, & Meengs, 2006; Young & Nestle, 2002) – in other words, we tend to eat  the whole portion regardless of its size and our hunger. Since observational studies reveal that portion sizes are increasing in the United States, there’s a reason to reconsider this habit (Nielsen & Popkin, 2003; Smiciklas-Wright, Mitchell, Mickle, Goldman, & Cook, 2003).

photo by williamcho

8.  The shape of the food and food containers

Circular foods are more likely to be fully consumed than square ones because they appear smaller (Krider, Raghubir, & Krishna, 2001). It’s particularly difficult to estimate the amount of amorphous food shapes (Slawson & Eck, 1997). People pour greater amounts of a beverage into a wide cup than a tall one, and they consume more from wider containers (Wansink & Van Ittersum, 2003, 2005).

photo by The Infatuated

9.  Flatware

One observational study reported that the use of straws leads to smaller sip volume than drinking directly from cups (Lawless et al., 2003). An experiment found that even nutrition experts who were given 3-oz capacity serving spoons at an ice cream social served themselves 14.5% more than those who had been given 2-oz serving spoons (Wansink, Van Ittersum, &Painter, 2006).

photo by sleepyneko

10. Stockpiling
Experimental evidence suggests that stockpiling of foods in storage units (such as in pantries, cupboards, and refrigerators) increases intake (Chandon & Wansink, 2002, according to Sobal & Wansink 2007). However, this is more likely for convenient, ready-to-eat foods, while less convenient foods are eaten at a similar rate stockpiled or not (Chandon & Wansink, 2002, according to Sobal & Wansink 2007).

photo by clarescupcakes.co.uk

The good news is, if you passed through all these images of beautifully arranged food without an increase in motivation to eat, you’re probably among those who are less sensitive to environmental cues. If not, you can now consider, beside an option of mindful eating, an option of mindfully creating your eating microenvironment.

Ferriday, D. & and Brunstrom, J.M. (2011) ‘I just can’t help myself’: effects of food-cue exposure in overweight and lean individuals. International Journal of Obesity  35, 142–149;

Sobal, J. & Wansin, B. (2007) Kitchenscapes, Tablescapes, Platescapes, and Foodscapes. Influences of Microscale Built Environments on Food Intake. Environment and Behavior, 39,124.

Stroebele N, De Castro JM. Effect of ambience on food intake and food choice. Nutrition, 2004; 20: 821-838 (link)


3 Responses to “Environmental Cues for Food Intake – 10 Things that Prompt Us to Eat More Than We Need”

  1. Again, very interesting article, thanks!

    You probably find this article also interesting http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666310004666


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