Oct. 20, 2015

What's on your countertop might predict your weight

A quick glance in a person’s kitchen might reveal more than just their taste in food. A new Cornell study suggests that the kinds of ready-to-eat foods left out on the countertop and other visible parts of the kitchen could also hint at the weight of the people there, especially for women.

The study looked at photographs of more than 200 kitchens in Syracuse, New York, to test how the food environment relates to the body mass index (BMI) of the adults at home. When it comes to the food left out in the kitchen, it’s increasingly clear that what you see is what you eat.

The women in the study who kept fresh fruit out in the open tended to be a normal weight compared with their peers. But when snacks like cereals and sodas were readily accessible, those people were heavier than their neighbors – by an average of more than 20 pounds.

“It’s your basic See-Food Diet – you eat what you see,” said Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and lead author of the paper published in the journal Health Education and Behavior.

The study found that women who kept soft drinks on their counter weighed 24 to 26 pounds more than those who kept their kitchen clear of the sugary beverages. Keep a box of cereal on the counter, and the women there weighed an average 20 pounds more than their neighbors who didn’t.

“As a cereal lover, that shocked me,” said Wansink. “Cereal has a health-halo, but if you eat a handful every time you walk by, it’s not going to make you skinny.”

When unhealthy foods are the most visible options in the kitchen, falling into habits that lead to weight gain becomes easier. Keeping those foods out of sight by sequestering them in pantries and cupboards reduces their convenience, making it less likely that they will be grabbed in a moment of hunger.

Clearing the counters of the cereals, sodas and other snack items and replacing them with healthier visible cues like fresh fruit could help, the study found: Women who had a fruit bowl visible weighed about 13 pounds less than neighbors who didn’t.

The study also found that normal-weight women were more likely to have a designated cupboard for snack items and less likely to buy food in large-sized packages than those who are obese.

The findings provide new insights into the role environmental factors play with obesity and offer remedies to rid the home of unhealthy cues while promoting the healthy ones. Rather than just the usual dietary advice prescribing less food and more exercise, the study suggests that consciously replacing unhealthy cues with healthy ones in the home could have a real impact on a person’s BMI, especially for women.

“We’ve got a saying in our lab, ‘If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do,’” Wansink said.

For more about the study, including a video explaining the findings, visit the Cornell Food and Brand Lab website.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.