“It’s easier to spend five minutes cleaning up your kitchen than 24 hours trying to resist snacks,” senior study author Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design, said by email.
To test how clutter impacts food choices and calorie consumption, researchers invited about 100 college women to participate in what they were told was an experiment exploring the link between personality and taste preference. To sweeten the invite, the students were promised course credit and a chance to win an MP3 player.
The small experiment was also designed to test how mindset influences food choices.
Half of the women were randomly sent to an ordinary, clean kitchen, while the rest were directed to an extremely disorganized room with tables out of place and heaped with piles of papers, dishes and pots scattered around.
Then, researchers asked the women to complete brief writing assignments on one of three topics – a time when they felt chaotic and out-of-control, a time when they felt organized and in control, or a neutral recollection of the last class lecture they attended.
While they worked, women in the messy kitchen were treated to a cacophony of distracting sounds as a researcher made a deliberate show of cleaning up the room. In the clean kitchen, women worked without distractions.
When they finished writing, the snacks came out for what women thought was the main point of the experiment – a taste test of cookies, crackers and baby carrots.
Women in the messy kitchen who had just finished writing about a stressful moment in their lives ate more cookies – 103 calories – than their peers in this room who had just recalled a time when they felt organized and in control – they ate only 38 calories.
Meanwhile, in the clean kitchen, women given the out-of-control writing assignment consumed 61 calories of cookies, compared to 50 calories for their peers asked to recall a moment when they felt organized and in charge.
One limitation of the study is that researchers didn’t assess how the different kitchens actually made women feel, or the mind-set produced by the various writing tasks, the authors note.
Because the messy kitchen also had noise and other distractions, it’s also impossible to say how much the women’s snack choices were influenced by the dirty room versus the other things happening in their environment, the researchers also note.
Even so, the findings underscore that less cluttered, less distracting and less chaotic environments might lead people to snack less, the researchers conclude in the journal Environment and Behavior.
“Eating healthy can be hard, and understanding the environmental factors like kitchen clutter than influence our eating can help individuals structure their homes in a way to make the healthier food choice the easier choice,” said Lindsey Smith Taillie, a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Maintaining a calm, clutter-free kitchen environment can help keep us from overeating sugary snacks,” Taillie added by email. “When that’s not possible, thinking about times of personal control can also help prevent overeating.”