Struggling to Lose Weight? Your Environment May Be to Blame

Sabrina Tillman
by Sabrina Tillman
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Struggling to Lose Weight? Your Environment May Be to Blame

You might not know it, but food psychologist Brian Wansink has probably already influenced the way that you eat. Although some of his views differ radically from conventional nutrition advice, his perspective could become the new gospel for those struggling to lose weight or maintain weight they’ve lost.

Wansink, who directs Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, studies how our physical environment impacts what and how we eat. He’s published several books, including Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, and was the lead author of more than 120 studies published in the last decade whose findings have led to paradigm shifts in the way we serve, consume, and market food. For example, his work has contributed to the use of taller, thinner glasses in some bars, the widely dispensed advice to eat off smaller plates, and the creation of 100-calorie snack packs.

A recent Mother Jones article detailed the uncommon wisdom of Wansink’s approach to food consumption, a sort of antithesis to the reduction and cold-turkey approaches of trading “unhealthy” foods for “healthy” ones. These approaches often neglect to address the deeply rooted emotional and environmental factors that complicate weight-loss efforts.

So instead of swimming upstream, Wansink adapts to his surroundings. He goes with the flow.

The author of the article describes Wansink as: “…not overweight in the slightest, nor is he remarkably fit. He exercises on occasion and tries ‘not to eat anything too awful,’ but he doesn’t diet.” The two go to lunch at Applebee’s. The author dutifully ordered a chicken salad while Wansink chose a wedge salad topped with bacon and ranch dressing, French onion soup and sliders.

“If you tell people to be mindful of what they order, they don’t like it as much and they make up for it later,” he explained to the author. “They tell themselves they deserve ice cream since they virtuously ate a salad for dinner.”

He didn’t finish everything. Satisfied with the salad, soup and one tiny cheeseburger, he took the rest to go.

Wansink believes that if we want to make eating better a lifestyle, we need to trick our brains into making the right choices. Even the smallest things, such as where you store your cereal (Wansink believes you’ll eat less of it if you store it out of sight in a pantry or cupboard instead of on the kitchen counter) and where you start grocery shopping (linger in the produce aisle first for at least 10 minutes; you’ll buy more fruits and veggies) can make huge impacts.

“It’s a lot easier for us to set up our most immediate environment so that it’s easier to eat better,” Wansink told the author.

For example, when serving healthier food to your family, don’t neglect the power of presentation. Wansink’s research on children’s eating habits revealed that serving kids fruit in colorful bowls instead of metal trays more than doubled consumption. Even seemingly insignificant details like giving kids sliced apples instead of the whole fruit, and calling carrots “X-Ray-Vision Carrots” instead of just “carrots” persuaded children to eat more produce.

And if shortcuts help you eat better at home, pay up for them and don’t feel guilty about it. Wansink buys bagged salad when he’s alone with the kids and needs to get dinner ready because it takes three steps out of the preparation process. If the choice is to serve greens out of a bag or omit the salad altogether from the meal, Wansink opts for the convenience of packaged salad.

Remember, it’s all about creating an environment that’s hospitable to healthier eating.

In addition to keeping the kitchen counters uncluttered by food, Wansink’s research has revealed:

  • People who get their food from the stovetop rather than from plates on the dining table ate 19 percent less.
  • If you set a glass on a table when you pour instead of holding it, you’ll pour 12 percent less.
  • Where you sit in a restaurant matters: Those dining at high-tops were less likely to order fried food, and those sitting farther from the entrance were 73 percent less likely to order dessert.
  • If you chew mint-flavored gum while grocery shopping, you’ll buy 7 percent less junk food.

Here are some ways the folks at MyFitnessPal make their environments more conducive to making better food choices:

  • Use a (small) plate instead of a big bowl to keep your eyes on portion size.
  • Eat at a table, away from screens, and take time to enjoy what you’re eating.
  • Put washed fruits and vegetables in the most visible part of your refrigerator so it’s the first thing you see when you open the door.
  • Keep healthy leftovers in glass containers at eye level in the fridge so you’ll be more likely to see and reach for them when you’re hungry.
  • Don’t keep foods you tend to overeat, like ice cream, in the house. Instead, get a scoop at an ice cream shop every once in a while.

What are some ways you’ve changed your surroundings in an effort to eat better? Share your comments below.


About the Author

Sabrina Tillman
Sabrina Tillman

Sabrina Tillman is the managing editor for MyFitnessPal. She’s a dedicated runner, Pilates enthusiast and homecook whose knack for creating dishes on the fly (as well as food her son will actually eat) with whatever ingredients are in the house earned her the nickname “Kitchen MacGyver” by her husband. If she can find any spare time, she enjoys chasing her son, reading, attempting to bake, and napping.


40 responses to “Struggling to Lose Weight? Your Environment May Be to Blame”

  1. Avatar TinaZ says:

    Thank you for writing this article.

  2. Avatar lwright311 says:

    Get an inexpensive kitchen scale and make your own 100 calorie snack packs using the nutrition label information. This might require a little math but it isn’t too hard usually. I also use disposable medicine cups to serve dressings and dips which gives a perfect 2 Tbsp portion. Plus the kids get a kick out of the little cups.

  3. Avatar Lara says:

    Hi Im Lara I was over weight and tried so many things. Different things work for different people and I was lucky enough to find one that worked for me. I lost 18 pounds in one month without much exercise and it’s been a life changer. I’m a little embarrased to post my before and after photos here but if anyone actually cares to hear what I’ve been doing then I’d be happy to help in any way. Just shoot me an email at and I’ll show you my before and after photos, and tell you about how things are going for me with the stuff I’ve tried. I wish someone would have helped me out when I was struggling to find a solution so if I can help you then it would make my day

  4. Avatar armon says:

    I’ve moved the fruit bowls from the dining room onto kitchen counter. When I’m serving dinner to my family, I’ve been using our smaller plates. I got a scale for th kitchen, and I’ve been weighing everything I’m eating. I’ve been losing weight and my family members are picking up some of my healthy behaviors.

  5. Avatar jasie_pooh says:

    I absolutely need help when it comes to dieting.

    • Avatar Mary says:

      Not to offend… The first problem is you are looking TO diet AS opposed to help with a healthy lifestyle. I always thought what a load of b.s. until I retrained myself to be able to say “I don’t want any cake” instead of “I can’t have any.” I found it has come down to my way of thinking in order to conquer what I want vs. Don’t want. I CAN have anything but do I WANT it. 🙂 good luck!

    • I hear what your saying but Mary makes an excellent point. I had to really stop focusing on dieting and more on how can I make small changes to improve my overall lifestyle? How can I make better choices? I can tell you more what works for me, just reach out. Let me know if you are looking for an accountability buddy as well.

  6. Avatar aszuredee says:

    I drink a full glass of water before eating anything. It helps me with portion control.

  7. Avatar BeckTX3 says:

    I’m constantly trying to improve eating habits for me and for my family. I recently started making a snack drawer in the fridge that has healthy things like carrots, celery, broccoli, apples, boiled eggs and string cheese all in one spot so that the kids know right where to go to get a healthy snack and I have a quick way to toss them into lunch bags during the week too. 30 minutes of prep keeps us from snacking on the bad stuff the entire week. Of course I very rarely buy the “bad stuff” anymore. I don’t even get asked to buy it anymore. It might seem too simple–but about a decade ago when my son was 10, I realized that I was buying about 5 different kinds of soda and 5 different pre-packaged snacks for my kids and husband to eat. I wasn’t eating it except for occasionally–but my husband and kids were eating them. Not only was I spending a lot of unnecessary money on that junk–but my husband was gaining weight and I worried my kids would too. So I weaned them off of it all. I stopped buying soda and got water with flavor packets at first to help them transition–now they just drink water. Then I got 100 calorie packs for snacks and fruits and veggies, and now I only buy the fruits and veggies. If you make a gradual transition–you won’t feel as deprived and neither will your family. I’m constantly finding new ideas, but like the article says, presentation means a lot too. I got all of my kids to eat more veggies by making up veggie trays like you would have at a party because I noticed that seemed to be when I would see them eat veggies. Eventually I didn’t have to make it look like that anymore.

  8. Avatar tcrane says:

    I agree with some of the other commenters- I always make my own 100-150 calorie snack bags and try and portion control or at least measure all snack foods. I also keep 2 levels of after dinner treats for my self available- depending on how I have eaten that day or if I have exercised or not. It’s amazing what you will do for that special treat/ CHOCOLATE 🙂

  9. I really find this article to be true in my life! I don’t deprive myself from dessert, instead I will freeze blueberries put them in a cute cup and eat them with a spoon for dessert, totally tricks your mind.

    • Avatar BeckTX3 says:

      Yes, frozen fruit is a good way to have a frozen treat without the guilt. My girls love that. Oh, and thanks for being such an upbeat and positive poster, Brittany!

  10. Avatar ChrissyE says:

    It’s taken me 5 years to lose the 110 lbs that I gained during my first 5 years of marriage. During this period, I discovered that it wasn’t entirely what I was eating but more the fact that I am a “volume eater”. I eat just as much food as I did back then, but now my days include at least 5 servings of veggies, and any fruit I eat is on top of that. I’ve learned that I can still eat large volumes of food – but now I choose the healthiest foods. Also during this period I’ve become active. I workout at least 5 times a week. It truly is a lifestyle, not a diet. I still enjoy lots of what I love to eat, which now includes craving vegetables! I cook enough vegetables every Sunday so that I have at least 3 varieties I can chose from everyday throughout the week. There’s no excuse for me to not eat them if they are prepared and ready to go when I am hungry after I get home from my workouts. And yes, they are in clear containers right at the front of my fridge! With this success and all I’ve learned, I’m now challenging myself to get to a weight that I’ve never been – the one that doctors would like to see me at. It’s my goal for 2015 and, so far, has not been easy, though none of this process has. This article has inpired me and I’m going to use some of these tricks to see if it will help me to reach this goal. Good luck to everyone out there who works hard to maintain their health!

    • Avatar Jenn says:

      Way to go Chrissy! You have accomplished a lot and seem to be on the right track! Your response is very motivating!

  11. Avatar GEE says:

    I’ve got a bad knee ,wrists and major depression I love 2 train I blew up to 136 kg with my depression iam about 100kg the main problem is that the medication I have to have for the pain for my injuries and antidepressants tablet slow down my metadulizum I’ve been told by all 4 of my specailist I must get down to 85kg or under its hard but I stick at my diet and my training

    • Avatar Meggie says:

      Hi GEE, sorry to hear you are having a hard time 🙁 find an exercise that makes you happy to go maybe where you can meet people? Low intensity? Good luck!!

    • Avatar mamasand73 says:

      I also have bad knees and struggle with major depression. I have found that yoga has been a game-changer for me. Not only is it great for the body (and no-impact) but the meditation involved has helped with my depression tremendously. Most of all, though, when I do a great yoga workout, the last thing I want to do is put junk into my body. I’ve found that it makes me WANT to eat better and DO better for myself. Good luck and hang in there!

  12. Avatar Dulsea Paino says:

    I’ve been overweight all my life and tried so many things. Different things work for different people and I was lucky enough to find one that worked for me. I lost 21 pounds in one month without exercise and it has been a life changer. I’m a little embarrased to post my before and after photos here but if anyone actually cares to hear what I’ve been doing then I’d be happy to help in any way. Just shoot me an email at and I’ll show you my before and after photos, and tell you about how things are going for me with the stuff I’ve tried. I wish someone would have helped me out when I was struggling to find a solution so if I can help you then it would make my day

  13. Avatar Coach Levi says:

    I’m 30 and I’d still take X-Ray-Vision Carrots over cookies or ice cream! 😀

  14. What helped me the most was to start using a scale. Weight everything and see its caloric and nutrient value. eg 150 grams of chicken filet look too little, but if diced and spread on a plate, look a big portion. Then you garnish just salad with half a spoon of olive oil, and you go home with 160 calories, and a load of protein.
    It works wonders on me

  15. Avatar Jessica Carreras says:

    The point about convenience is so true. Im big on making everything from scratch. But if I have a bunch of veggies and meat in the fridge, and I have a frozen pizza, and I’m tired and hungry, guess which option I’m going to choose? Sometimes it’s worth it to pay more for healthy convenience.

  16. Avatar mike says:

    All my life my wieight will yo-yo up and down by up to 100lbs. To date I am again for now the 4th time coming back down from my heaviest of 300lbs, (with too many other up and downs to count mixed in as well). I know how to eat well, excercise, and make healthy choices. Many heavy people know how to better eat then skinny people, problem is, at least in my case it is not my nature. The unhealthy foods are the ones I crave, the ones that give me a sense of satisfaction, and enjoy eating. I dont like excersice, at all. I like doing physical activities, yard work, construction, boating, but not for the purpose of being healthy. When I do watch what I eat and exercise it is forced behavior that just never becomes a natural habit. It is a constant struggle and when I have been healthy, even for years it takes very little for me to fall back to what comes natural. One of my biggest issues is the fact I know how relativley easy it is for me to lose weight, and quickly. That I can lose 100lbs in 5-6 months, so when I do start gaining weight again it is in the back my of my head that I can just take it off again. It is all on me, I dont blame anyone else, it is just how I am wired. I hope this time to stay the course, but history shows I will get down to my goal weight and then start gaining again. I just wish what com
    es natural for so many, was natural for me as well.

    • Avatar Hillary says:

      That sounds so frustrating. Its hard to make forced behavior long-term. Instead of “exercise” per se can you spend that time doing outdoor activties that are physical and you enjoy, but that don’t feel like exercise? Even just walking consistently has a lot of benefits and I never feel like walking is work.

    • Avatar Lynn says:

      I am exactly the same way, but with many decades of experience with this. At some point (over 70) the metabolism really slows down and this doesn’t work as well. I really appreciated this article for many reasons, but initially it was about not giving up or giving in. Appreciated your share and your perspective, Mike.

  17. Avatar konyin says:

    Ive stopped stocking my room with unhealthy snacks but instead opt for keeping fruit and nuts in my room. When I get hungry and get a sugar craving, im also usually too lazy/weak to go to the shop and buy choc biscuits so I just eat the closest thing in sight. You’ll be surprised what food you’ll suddenly tolerate when you’re hungry

  18. Avatar Robyn Dessoy says:

    I’m really struggling with this myself, I have joined a gym and was working out anywhere up to 4 times a week which was really starting to show results! However I’ve been ill for the last couple of months which is putting me off going to the gym because I don’t want to make it worse.
    This article has some really good ideas that I’ll definitely try to help improve my diet. I don’t know how well they’ll go down at home – my partner is a cookie fiend! Haha.

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