"There are the little things that we can do to just
make our diets healthier, and one of them is the simple idea to just
put the healthy foods closer to you and you'll find you can use your
laziness to your advantage," Gregory Privitera told Reuters Health.
Privitera, a psychology researcher at Saint Bonaventure University
in Bonaventure, New York, led the study, which he says was inspired
by experience with his kids.
"Every time my kids would tell me, 'I want a snack,' I would point
to the bowl of fruit on the kitchen table and just say, 'Go at it — you can have as many as you want.,' and they'd say, 'Oh, I don't want
that,' and I'd say, 'OK then, make your own snack," Privitera
"And then lo and behold, they'd come walking by a minute or two
later with fruits and vegetables in their hands," he said.
"I realized they're not going to make their own snacks, they're
going to take what was easier to get, the fruits on the kitchen
table," he said.
Privitera said early studies by Brian Wansink at Cornell University
in New York using bowls of candy were also an influence.
"He found the closer you put the bowl of candies, the more that
people ate of them," Privitera said.
Privitera said he and his co-author Faris Zuraikat wanted to know
whether the type of foods used in such a study made a difference, so
they did a similar experiment with healthier foods.
"The short answer is no — we can put healthy foods in and move them
closer to a participant and they'll eat more of that," Privitera
said. "We showed that last year in a study with carrots and apples."
To go beyond choices between two healthy foods, the researchers
recruited new study participants and added buttered popcorn to the
For the new study, the researchers selected 56 men and women who
were, on average, 19 years old and in good health. Twenty were of a
healthy weight, 21 were overweight and 15 were obese.
One at a time, each participant was seated at a kitchen table where
a bowl of apple slices and a bowl of popcorn had been placed; one
was within arms' reach and the other about twice as far away.
About a third of the participants had the apples placed closer to
them, another third had the popcorn placed closer to them.
The remaining third of the participants served as a control group
and sat at tables where the apples and popcorn were the same
In each case, a researcher said they had to leave the room for a few
minutes to go get a questionnaire and that it was okay for the
participant to eat the food while the researcher was gone.
After six minutes, the researcher returned, recorded the amounts of
apple and popcorn that were eaten, and asked the participant to rate
each food from 1 to 5, with 5 representing "liked a lot."
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Overall, participants tended to say they preferred popcorn but
those who were closer to the apples ate, on average about 1.5 ounces
of apple slices, while those closer to the popcorn only ate 0.2
ounces of apple. The control group ate about 1 ounce of apple
The participants closest to the apples also ate the least amount
of popcorn — about 0.7 ounce, compared to 0.26 ounce for those
seated closer to the popcorn, and 0.33 ounce for the control group.
The findings were published in Appetite.
"The takeaway from this is that you can set up the food environment
that you and your children live in to make it easier to grab the
healthiest foods," Privitera said.
The idea is that small changes can add up, he added. For example, a
person who normally reaches for an unhealthy snack five or six times
per day could switch to eating fruit.
"You're looking at, over the course of a year, substantially reduced
energy intake and an overall healthier diet because you're eating a
lot more fruits and vegetables simply by making them more convenient
and easy to reach," he said.
Lori Rosenthal, a dietician who works with weight-loss surgery
patients at Montefiore Medical Center in New York told Reuters
Health that proximity does play a role in the foods people choose.
"When we're hungry, we wind up choosing convenience and a lot of
times we choose convenience over health when there's not a healthy
option there," said Rosenthal, who was not involved in the new
She said having fresh fruits out on the counter is one way to keep
healthy foods in close reach.
"Your eye goes to them first, you see the bright colors — it's not
just having them close to you, they're also enticing," she said.
Rosenthal also advised avoiding the temptation to eat unhealthy
foods by keeping them out of the house.
"If you have trigger foods, or specific foods you can't control
yourself around, you don't want them within close proximity to you,
especially in your house," she said.
Appetite, online Feb. 19, 2014.
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