The ambience of a restaurant can make all the difference to your eating experience. But can it also affect your food choices? Low light in restaurants has previously been linked to eating less food more slowly than in brighter restaurants. Now, according to new research published in the Journal of Marketing Research, lighting also influences what kinds of food we order.
The new research, led by Dr. Dipayan Biswas of the University of South Florida, suggests that those dining in well-lit rooms are between 16 and 24% more likely to order healthy foods than those in dimly lit rooms. And it's not just a case of being seen to eat the right things. Evidence was found, the researchers say, that this effect is mainly due to how alert diners are. "We feel more alert in brighter rooms," says Biswas, "and therefore tend to make more healthful, forward-thinking decisions."
The researchers surveyed 160 restaurant customers at four separate casual chain restaurants. It was found that the portion of diners who were seated in brighter rooms — around half — were more likely to choose healthier options (such as grilled and baked fish, vegetables or white meat) than relatively unhealthy items (such as fried foods or desserts). Indeed, analysis of sales receipts showed that those eating in dimly lit rooms ordered around 39% more calories. When four further studies involving a total of 700 college-aged students were carried out, researchers saw the same results.
One thing is certain — it's not the shame of being seen eating the bad stuff. The follow-up studies also showed that when the alertness of diners in dimly-lit rooms was increased in some other way — either with a caffeine placebo or by a more direct method — they were just as likely as those in brightly lit rooms to make healthier food choices. From this, the researchers conclude that the main reason that we make healthier choices in well-lit spaces is because we feel more alert. It seems being aware of what we're eating is the key here — we've previously seen how a mirror can make unhealthy food less tasty.
Lighting is used by restaurant designers to create atmosphere and so enhance the eating experience, which is why many places opt for a cozier mood. "Dim lighting isn't all bad," says study co-author Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. "Despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more." So, what's the real take-away from all this? According to Wansink, doing what you can to make yourself feel alert is the best way to avoid overindulging when the lights are low.