The Unexpected Element Upping the Calorie Counts of Your Meals

Dim lighting isn't doing your waistline any favors, science shows.

Going out to dinner is one of the many joys in life. And it doesn’t always have to be super indulgent — many of us know the basics of enjoying a meal out while not completely blowing the calorie bank: steer clear of fried foods, nix the sugary drinks, go for green, try not to overdo it on the bread basket, and so on. But what if it isn’t all completely in your control? What if there are exterior forces causing you to throw caution to the wind and order the fried ice cream?

SURPRISE! Turns out there are. A recent study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, found that the type of lighting in the joint you’re eating at can greatly affect your dining choices. When the lighting is dim, diners are more likely order dishes with way more calories. Like, 39 percent more calories. 

The researchers found these results by first monitoring a group of 160 people in four casual chain restaurants, then repeating the study on 700 college-aged kids. Out of the diners who ate in brightly lit rooms, about half tended to go for white meats, veggies or fish that was grilled or baked and decided to say no thanks to the dessert menu. Meanwhile, those dining in dimly lit rooms ordered an average of 39 percent more calories worth of grub than those who chowed down with bright lights.

So, why? Well, that’s where the researchers’ follow-up study comes in. This time around, they gave caffeine placebo pills to diners or simply prompted them to be alert before sitting them down in a dimly lit room to enjoy a meal. Turns out, those diners were just as likely to opt for healthy choices as those in the brightly lit rooms. This led the researchers to conclude it’s not necessarily the lighting that screws with the calorie counts of your meals, but how alert you are in the space where you’re dining. Well-lit spaces make us feel more alert, so bam: healthier food choices. Long story short, you don’t really NEED to be in a well-lit room when you are treating yourself to a night out, but you DO need to be conscious, pay attention and make bright choices … pun intended. And an espresso before dinner at your favorite dimly lit Italian restaurant probably wouldn’t hurt.

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