Let’s be real, it’s damn near impossible to avoid eating a cookie when it’s sitting right on your counter or desk. Sweets and fatty junk foods are just too hard to resist when they’re in plain sight. And that’s not just in your head — science backs it up.
Research shows that if you keep a candy dish in your line of vision at the office or at home — or simply somewhere close to you (proximity can also pose a problem) — you’re more likely to eat it, and more of it. “Just seeing food can actually spike your hunger levels and release dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure,” says Torey Armul, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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The good news: You can avoid calorie traps by taking away the temptation and applying the visibility concept to healthy foods instead. In fact, one study from the University of Copenhagen found that “healthy food nudging,” aka making fruits, veggies, whole grains, and nuts more prominent on a table or at a public buffet, makes people more likely to eat them. (Sounds pretty straightforward, right?)
Arrange your pantry, counter and dinner table according to these expert-approved tips to help you reap the benefits of a slimmed-down, clean eating environment.
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1. Make space.
Have you ever felt excited to cook in a messy kitchen? Neither have we. The last thing most of us want to do after a long day is clear space to chop, mix and sauté, so we resort to take-out. Your first line of defense: Keep your countertop clear, says Armul. “We all usually start the day with great willpower to eat healthy, but as the day goes on, that willpower wanes,” she says. “You want to set yourself for success later in the day by making healthy eating the easier option.” That means taking a few extra minutes after a meal to clean, so you’re ready to whip up breakfast, lunch or dinner the next day.
2. Remove the distractions.
The more time you spend in your kitchen, the more calories you’re likely to consume, according to Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Slim by Design. You want your food space to scream more “in and out” than “let’s hang out.” Shorten your kitchen chill sessions by removing the TV, any other electronics not meant for cooking and any super comfy chairs. You know what they say about food: Out of sight, out of mind… or mouth.
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3. Keep healthy snacks handy.
The reason so many people reach for a bag of Doritos is because it’s just so convenient. But you can create that same handiness factor with healthy foods — as long as you do a little meal prep. As soon as you get home from grocery shopping, Armul suggests rinsing your produce. Then put your fruits in a clear bowl on your counter or in your fridge and cut up your veggies so they’re as easy to pop in your mouth as those fried tortillas. Control portions, too, by measuring out snack-sized bags of foods like almonds or carrots. This trick is extra helpful if you buy things in bulk.
4. Get on eye level.
Because we tend to eat whatever is right in front of us (especially when our stomachs are rumbling), put nutrient-packed foods at eye level in your fridge and pantry, says Armul. Place items like sliced peppers, yogurt, berries or salad in a clear bowl on the top shelf of the fridge. And keep oatmeal, dried fruit, nuts and grains in see-through containers in your cabinet. Cake, pizza and other sugar– or fat-filled snacks go in opaque containers or wrapped in aluminum foil.
Follow the same rule for what you put on your countertop. A study from Dr. Wansink at Cornell’s Food and Brand lab found that women who kept cereal or soft drinks out in the open weighed at least 20 pounds more than those who kept only a fruit bowl handy.
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5. Fill your own plate.
When it’s time to sit down for dinner, keep the food in the kitchen, except for maybe a salad on the table. Have everyone fill their own plates before sitting down. “Forcing people to get up for a second helping usually gives them pause and helps them reassess their hunger levels,” says Armul.
6. Place veggies first.
Besides eating veggies first at your meals (say, starting with a soup or salad), it also helps to have make-your-own stations, says F.J. Armando Perez-Cueto, associate professor in the department of food science at the University of Copenhagen. When you place ingredients in smaller, separate bowls, people tend to take waistline-friendly portions — especially if you make produce more readily available and placed at the front of the line.
“We’ve seen in the lab that people still eat the same amount of food, but the energy intake is lower, probably because of a kind of dilution effect by the vegetables,” Perez-Cueto explains. “Even men — usually considered meat, gravy and potato eaters — have their veggies when the organization of a buffet is different.”
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7. Freeze sweets.
Sometimes dessert feels necessary and it’s perfectly OK to indulge every once in a while. But to slow down while you eat, savor the flavors and snack a little less, Armul recommends storing chocolate, candy, cupcakes and muffins in the freezer. “Waiting for it to thaw may let the craving pass, especially if you drink water or start doing something else,” she says. “It also keeps it farther out of sight.”