Fooling Your Appetite

How to change your everyday environment so that it encourages healthy eating and exercise habits.

By Lauren Aaronson, published on December 10, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

You'd weigh less if you lived on the moon. You'd also weigh less if you lived in a world with smaller plates and bigger parks.

Our environment, from the size of our soup bowls to the height of our staircases, influences both how much we eat and how much we exercise. Food and exercise, of course, influence our weight and health. While you may not be able to rebuild your staircase—much less rocket to the moon—you can make simple changes to your surroundings so that they encourage physical activity and healthy eating habits.

Opportunities for change pop up nearly everywhere, beginning in your kitchen cabinet. Drink from tall, thin glasses and you'll drink less than if you drink from short, fat glasses, even if they hold the same amount, says Professor Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His experiments show that adults pour 30 to 35 percent more O.J. into chubby cups, since people tend to recognize height more easily than width.

Wansink himself has tossed all his short glasses into the trash. If you don't want to go quite that far, try pushing your short glasses to the back of your shelf and taking them out only when you drink wholesome, calorie-free water.

Just as the shape of a glass can trick us into drinking too much, the number of dishes on a table can trick us into eating too much. Wansink tested this idea by serving Chex Mix, M and Ms and peanuts at a series of holiday parties. At some parties he set out one giant bowl of each kind of food, while at other parties he broke the same amount of food into 12 smaller bowls. Guests at the small-bowl parties ate 16 percent more, because the numerous bowls made it appear to the brain as if there were more varieties of treats for them to try.

So don't pass two dishes of stuffing around the table, Wansink suggests. Keeping the stuffing in one large bowl will reduce the illusion of variety, so guests won't be as tempted to overeat.

The tricks that our eyes play on our stomachs don't have to work against us, says Wansink. "The same things that make us overeat Chex Mix can also make us overeat vegetables," he notes. A mixed salad, which gives an impression of variety, will coax us into eating more nutritious veggies than we would with separate plates of lettuce and carrots.

In the same way that you can put carrots within easy reach, you can also put opportunities for exercise within easy reach. Most people think that exercise has to involve a gym or a treadmill, observes scientist Richard E. Killingsworth, but physical activity can actually be worked into your daily routine.

Killingsworth directs the Active Living by Design program, which received a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to investigate how community design can encourage people to be more active. The program also partners with communities to promote parks, bike trails and other environmental features that make exercise enjoyable and convenient.

The best opportunities for exercise have to do with transportation, says Killingsworth. Safe sidewalks and bike paths can turn short trips to school, work or the store into beneficial activities.

You can incorporate exercise into your daily routine even if you don't yet have bike paths. For instance, you can choose the stairs over the elevator. And adults and children alike can get more exercise, suggests Killingsworth, if parents team up to supervise children on safe, healthy hikes to school.

By noticing how your environment affects what you eat and what you do, you can learn to make fitness and nutrition as much a part of your everyday life as, well, your environment.