Dimmed lights. Soft music. Does a restaurant's ambience make you more likely to order unhealthy food?

By Alyssa Sparacino
Updated: May 31, 2016

Ever sit down at a cozy restaurant with the lighting dimmed so low you need to whip out your iPhone flashlight just to read the menu? That kind of ambience may actually lead you to order dishes that have 39 percent more calories than what you might order in brightly lit rooms, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University looked at the dining habits of 160 people at casual chain restaurants half of whom were in brightly lit rooms and the other half whom were in dimly lit rooms. Results, which will be published in the Journal of Marketing Research, showed that those who ate in brighter light were more likely to order healthy items such as baked fish and veggies, while those who ate in dim lighting gravitated toward fried food and dessert. (See 7 More Zero-Calorie Factors That Derail Weight Loss.)

The authors aimed to replicate the same findings (to solidify their results) in four different subsequent studies, which surveyed 700 college-aged students in total. In these follow-up studies, the authors increased diners' alertness by giving them either a caffeine placebo pill or by simply prompting them to remain alert during the meal. When these tactics were introduced, diners in dimly lit rooms were just as likely to make healthy food choices than their bright-room counterparts.

So what does this all mean? Are these findings a total romantic candlelit-dinner buzzkill? The authors attribute the results to alertness more so than the lighting, saying that you're probably making healthier choices in bright lighting because you feel more aware and mindful. And it makes sense: If no one can see your order tiramisu in that dark corner, then did it really happen?

"We tend to get more sleepy and less mentally alert when ambient light is dim than when it's bright," says lead study author Dipayan Biswas, Ph.D., professor of marketing at the University of South Florida. "This is because ambient light influences cortisol production, which in turn influences alertness and sleepiness levels." Brighter light, then, means higher cortisol levels and a higher level of alertness. "With reduced alertness levels in dim lighting, we tend to make more indulgent (unhealthy) food choices," adds Biswas.

The good news is "dim lighting isn't all bad," co-author Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, said in a news release. "Despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more."

Mindful eating has long been touted as a weight loss tool, as it can help you to eat slower, consume less, and become more aware of when you're really full. It's even been linked to reduced belly fat! Keep up that practice, and you're more likely to make healthy food choices, no matter how dark the room.


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