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Social critics fret that Americans are growing fat and lazy. Well, newly published research suggests we may be able to combat our obesity problem by tapping into our inherent unwillingness to get up off of our butts.
It finds choosing a healthy or unhealthy snack may come down to which of them is nearest to our fingertips. St. Bonaventure University researchers Gregory Privitera and Faris Zuraikat report that, if placed within easy reach, people will eat more of a low-calorie treat, “even in a competitive food environment in which a preferred, higher calorie food is also made available.”
In the journal Appetite, they describe a study featuring 56 undergraduates. The 26 men and 30 women “ranged across the full spectrum” of body types, from healthy to obese. All were instructed not to eat for two hours before the experiment.
Each participant was ushered into a kitchen and invited to sit down, alone, at a small round table. A researcher then announced: “I will be right back with some questionnaires. By the way, there are foods in the bowls if you would like something to eat.”
One bowl featured fresh apple slices; the other contained high-fat movie-theater popcorn. For some participants, the fruit was placed on the table at arm’s reach, while the popcorn bowl was sitting on a counter about six feet away. For others, these positions were reversed, while for still others, both were placed on the table near the participant.
“The far location,” the researchers point out, “required participants to get up and walk to the bowl in order to reach the food.”
Six minutes later, the researcher returned, and the participant rated how much he or she liked the snacks. (The vast majority had sampled both.) The researcher then measured how much was consumed from each bowl.
Not surprisingly, the students preferred the popcorn to the apple slices. But this preference was not the key factor determining how much they consumed.
Rather, “when popcorn was near, more popcorn was consumed,” the researchers report. “When apply slices were near, more apples were consumed.” When both were close by, participants ate a roughly equal amount of each, thereby consuming the greatest total amount of food among the three groups.
“Proximity influenced total energy intake,” the researchers add, “in that the least calories were consumed when apple slices were near and popcorn was far.”
While it’s somewhat demoralizing to realize how reluctant we are to walk a few steps, even given a tempting incentive, these results suggest a simple and promising method of calorie control.
After all, forbidding oneself from eating certain foods can produce a backlash. This plan circumvents that by keeping fattening treats available.
All you have to do is place them six feet away. Your inertia will do the rest.
Pacific Standard is a bimonthly print and daily online magazine that highlights the best thinking in the social sciences, technology, health, and policy, and grounds those ideas in real stories—entertaining, accessible, urgent. We are of the West, but not strictly about the West.