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Messy kitchens coupled with ‘out of control’ feelings may lead to eating more sweets, study finds

When we’re feeling hassled, whether at work or at home, we tend to increase our intake of high-fat, high-sugar snack foods — most likely because the stress weakens our self-control.

If you’re trying to cut back on calories, you might want to try keeping a cleaner, more organized kitchen, particularly if you’re feeling stressed about other matters.

A recent study found that a chaotic kitchen environment can make people more vulnerable to snacking on unhealthy foods, although primarily if they are already in an out-of-control mindset.

The study, which was published earlier this month in the journal Environment & Behavior, has implications beyond the kitchen, say its authors. “The notion that places — such as cluttered offices or disorganized homes — can be modified to help us control our food intake is becoming an important solution in helping us become more ‘slim by design,’ ” they write. 

That wording is also by design. The study was led by Brian Wansink, who is director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.  He’s also the author of a book titled “Slim by Design.”

But Wansink is not alone in suggesting that the design of our environments affects our food choices — and perhaps our waistlines. In 2013, a University of Minnesota study reported that people in a a tidy, orderly room were three times more likely than people in a messy, cluttered room to choose an apple over chocolate as a snack.

The importance of stress

Plenty of other studies have demonstrated that stress has an important impact on the quantity and quality of food we eat. When we’re feeling hassled, whether at work or at home, we tend to increase our intake of high-fat, high-sugar snack foods — most likely because the stress weakens our self-control.

Research has also shown that our frame of mind can influence our eating behavior at times of stress. A 2014 study by Wansink and his colleagues found, for example, that when people were asked about an event from earlier in the day that had left them feeling grateful, they tended to subsequently choose a more healthful snack.

For the current study, Wansink and his colleagues wanted to see whether people’s frame of mind — feeling “in control” or “out of control” — would affect how much they ate in a messy environment.

In other words, can feeling in control of things act as a buffer against making poor food choices in chaotic environments? 

Study details

The study involved 98 undergraduate women, aged 17 to 27. Their body mass indices (BMIs) ranged from “underweight” to “obese,” but most of the women fell within the “normal” range. (The mean BMI was 22.3.)

The women were randomly assigned to a “standard” kitchen (“organized, quiet room with no disruptions”) or a “chaotic” kitchen (“tables out of place, papers piled on tables, pots and dishes scattered around”). To add to the confusion of the chaotic kitchen, the female experimenter who greeted the women in that room indicated that she was running late.

While in the kitchens, the undergraduates were randomly assigned to spend five minutes writing an essay either about a time in their lives when they felt particularly chaotic and out of control or about a time when they felt particularly organized and in control. (To serve as a control group, some women were assigned a “neutral” essay: writing about a recent class lecture.)  During the essay task, the experimenter in the messy kitchen “proceeded to tidy up the room in a loud and disruptive manner,” Wansink and his colleagues write. People also kept popping into the room, ostensibly asking about the whereabouts of a professor.

After completing their essays, the undergraduates were told they were participating in a “taste-rating task.” Three bowls filled with cookies, crackers and carrots were placed in front of them. They were instructed to taste each food and rate it on a number of qualities. They were also told that they could eat as much of each snack as they liked, “because we have tons of this food.” The students were then left alone in the room for 10 minutes.

Each bowl had been carefully pre-weighed before being brought into the room and placed before the undergraduates.

More cookies

The study found that the consumption of carrots and crackers wasn’t much different, statistically speaking, in the clean and messy kitchens. But kitchen cleanliness did affect the women’s cookie consumption. 

And, apparently, so did their state of mind after writing the essay.

Women in the chaotic kitchen who wrote about being out of control averaged 103 calories from the cookies. That compared to an average of 38 calories for those who wrote about being in control.

Women in the orderly kitchen who wrote about being out of control averaged 61 calories from the cookies. That compared to an average of 50 calories for those who wrote about being in control. 

This study has several limitations. It involved a small number of women who were similar in age and occupation (student). Most were also of normal weight. Findings in other populations might be very different. In addition, the study did not directly assess the perceived stress of the kitchen environment (messy or clean) or of the tasks themselves (writing the essay and judging the food) on the students.

The mind as a buffer

Still, the results are interesting. They suggest that “an individual’s mind-set can moderate the impact of a chaotic environment on food intake, particularly for sweet foods,” write Wansink and his colleagues. “Although a chaotic environment may be a risk factor for making unhealthy choices, one’s mind-set in that environment can either trigger or buffer against that risk factor.”

“There is a solution to eating less if you have a cluttered kitchen,” says Wansink in a video released with the study.

Clean Kitchens Cut Clutter video

Before you enter your kitchen, you can do what the people in this study did: sit and think about a time when you were in control in your life.

“But you know,” he adds, “it’s a whole lot easier to just keep your kitchen clean when you can.”

FMI: Wansink’s study can be read in full on the Environment & Behavior website until March 31, 2016. After that date, the study goes behind a paywall.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Moira Heffron on 02/17/2016 - 12:23 pm.

    LOL Have to agree

    I have experienced this in the kitchen. It’s about accessing something ready to eat rather than preparing something, in my case, either because the prep is inconvenient or because it will add to the mess. I’m not sure I agree about disorder in all areas. It depends on what you’re about at the time.

  2. Submitted by Elisa Wright on 02/17/2016 - 12:55 pm.

    True in my case.

    When we come home to kitchen chaos, I’m afraid we go out to eat more often than not.

  3. Submitted by Be Joeshmoe on 02/17/2016 - 02:50 pm.

    UCare Really?

    How is UCare influencing the content of this column/feature with their funding? If they have any influence at all, then MinnPost needs to be labeling this as an advertorial, for that’s what it is. Stop pretending it is unbiased journalism.

    • Submitted by Andrew Wallmeyer on 02/17/2016 - 03:45 pm.

      Editorial independence

      As a matter of policy, MinnPost’s sponsors, funders, and individual donors exercise no control over our editorial decisions. Their financial support enables our work – and we appreciate and publicly recognize that support – but our editorial team maintains complete control over the topics we cover and the way we cover them.

      We adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which can tell you more about how we work. And, in the interest of transparency, we include in our annual report a detailed list of our sponsors, funders, and individual donors.

    • Submitted by kelly barnhill on 02/17/2016 - 06:52 pm.

      I’m sorry, but where is the “conflict”? This isn’t a story about UCare or its services. How on earth do you read it as an “advertorial”? This is about behavioral research, not about how awesome a particular insurance company is. Did you read the article?

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