Research conducted in school cafeterias has highlighted ways to guide children toward making better food choices. One overlooked area of school cafeterias that deserves further study is the atmosphere/ambiance. The ambiance of a cafeteria can be easily overlooked because it is hard to measure; however, it is well known that people will carefully consider the environment of the restaurants they eat in. The surroundings of a fast food restaurant include very bright lights and uncomfortable seating. This environment encourages customers to eat fast and get on their way. On the flip side, fancy sit down restaurants have dim lighting, comfortable chairs, and typically soft, pleasant music in the background. This type of environment encourages customers to slow down and enjoy the food they are eating. Does the ambiance matter? Yes, it does for a variety of important reasons. Research has shown that the sounds you make while you are eating can impact how much food you eat (Elder & Mohr, 2016). A research team named this the “Crunch Effect,” and they suggested that people are likely to eat less if they are more conscious of the sound their food makes while they eat it. They suggested that listening to loud music or having a loud television on while eating serves to distract a person from hearing the eating sounds, pushing them to continue eating more. The researchers mentioned that sound food makes when eating is labeled as the “forgotten food sense.” In addition, a loud eating environment encourages eating too quickly. Research has found that:
- Eating speed has been linked to body weight.
- Fast eaters and slow eaters consume the same amount of food but fast eaters have higher body weights (Tanihara, 2011, Ohkuma, 2015, Maruyama, 2008, Sasaki, 2003).
How do we change the ambiance of the cafeteria to meet the needs of children when they are eating? The environment of a typical school cafeteria consists of bright lights, basic seating, and noise levels that are quite high. It is clear that there are limitations as to what can be done to modify the cafeteria setting, but there is potential to make small changes to improve the quality of the school cafeteria environment. Some schools have used music in the lunchroom and found that it lowered the noise and resulted in children behaving better (Chalmers, 1999). Other simple approaches to improving the ambiance of a cafeteria include:
- Allowing some of the lunch hour to be mindful eating time (quietly talking or no talking)
- Lowering or turning off some of the lights (not to the point of impairing vision)
- Playing calming music
- Making seats/chairs more comfortable
These same issues apply to the home eating environment. A noisy environment in the home will distract children and other family members from hearing the sound of their food and increase the speed at which they eat their food.
Relatively easy changes to the home eating environment include:
- Turning off the TV during meals
- Dimming or lowering lights while meals are being served
- Playing soft and calming music
- Using a lower tone of voice when speaking
We know that obesity rates are rising in children; modifying the eating environment in cafeterias/homes could allow children to hear their food while eating, which would slow down their eating speed. Therefore, we would be helping them develop lifelong eating habits that benefit their overall health.
Mara Vitolins DrPH, MPH, RDN
Wake Forest School of Medicine
Department of Epidemiology and Prevention
Winston-Salem, NC 27157
Chalmers, L. Olson M.R., Zurkowski J.K. (1999). Music as a Classroom Tool. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35:43-45. DOI: 10..1177/105345129903500108. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ593109
Elder R.S., Mohr G. S. (2016) The crunch effect: Food sound salience as a consumption monitoring cue. Food Quality and Preference, 51: 39-46 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2016.02.015
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Ohkuma, T., Hirakawa, Y., Nakamura, U., Kiyohara, Y., Kitazono, T., Ninomiya, T.(2015). Association between eating rate and obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Obes (Lond). 39(11):1589-96. Review. PMID:26100137. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2015.96
Sasaki, S., Katagiri, A., Tsuji, T., Shimoda, T., Amano, K. Self-reported rate of eating correlates with body mass index in 18-y-old Japanese women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 27(11):1405-10. PMID:14574353. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0802425
Tanihara, S., Imatoh, T., Miyazaki, M., Babazono, A., Momose, Y., Baba, M., Uryu, Y., Une, H.(2011)Retrospective longitudinal study on the relationship between 8-year weight change and current eating speed. Appetite.;57(1):179-83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2011.04.017