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Pay It Forward

Remember the movie ‘Pay It Forward’? For those who haven’t had the chance to see it, the basic premise of the movie involved a primary school kid who was given an assignment to make the world a better place. His idea was a network of ‘good deeds’, in which a recipient of a favour was to pass a favour onto three different people. Then each of those three people would pass on a favour to three other people, thereby exponentially increasing the number of favours and good deeds throughout the world.

Tips to Help Your Friends be Healthier

Wouldn’t this idea be fantastic if we could apply it to a health setting? If we can somehow influence someone to live a healthier lifestyle, who in turn influences 3 other people, then we could easily reduce the massive amounts of money associated with chronic diseases. In 2008, the cost of obesity alone was estimated to cost Australia $58 billion dollars or an average of $2700 per person living in Australia. What’s even more frightening is that this figure is set to increase quite sizeably unless something is done. So what can you do? Well, it’s all about the little things. People tend to resist outright attempts at trying to change a person’s lifestyle. Take for example, the avid gym-goer; imagine how annoying it can be sometimes to have a random person come up to you with ‘helpful advice’ about your lifting or running technique. So take the more subtle route when trying to improve the health of your friends, family and co-workers. Here are 10 handy things you can do to subconsciously influence the people around you to adopt a healthier lifestyle:

1. Avoid Negatives

As ironic as the next statement is, never use the word ‘never’. People tend to tune out when people use negative words such as ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’ or ‘shouldn’t’. In addition, using negatives often puts a dead-end into the situation and never really offers a solution. When trying to change someone’s eating or exercise habits, always offer an alternative.

Example:         ‘Do you want to try these sweet potato chips?’
‘Let’s walk to the restaurant, it’s not too far.’

2. Refocus Attention

People generally head towards things that we know, trust and have tasted before. This however often results in an inability to see other potentially healthier options. The next time you’re standing in a food court, a takeaway line or in a restaurant, try to direct their attention to a meal that is slightly healthier. Avoid picking the healthiest option however as this would be too obvious. Offering an alternative and shifting their focus from an unhealthier food increases the chance of them picking an alternative.

Example:         ‘Hey, take a look at this ratatouille.’

3. Sharing is Caring

Following on from the last point, sharing is often a great way to cut down on overall intake. Ask the person if they would like to share a salad with you before a main, which can help reduce the chance of ordering a dessert or eating the entire main. Sharing a main can help increase their amount of entrée’s ordered, which are often of smaller, portion controlled serving sizes. However, in larger groups, sharing can actually result in more food being eaten. The ideal amount of people to share with is between 2 or 3. When sharing, it is also important to remember that you can always order more, so remember to make that point vocal when sharing food.

4. Plates, Spoons & Glasses

Have you ever seen those optical illusions where two lines of the same length actually appear to be different lengths? Take the famous example:

The utensils, cutlery and containers that we eat and drink with can easily influence how much we eat and drink. For example, when people were invited to an ice-cream social, those people given larger scoops and bigger bowls ate between 14-30% more ice-cream than those people who were given smaller bowls and smaller scoops1. Similar studies with plates have found that people consume 22% more food when using a 12 inch plate instead of a 10 inch plate2. Moreover, people served themselves more food when using similar coloured plates as the food. For example; a red plate with red sauced pasta.

Your drinking cup can also influence how much you get served or will serve yourself. Those using smaller, wider cups generally drink more as the amount looks less than what it would appear with a taller, less wide up cup. The shape of the cup itself can often be misleading. Remember this when inviting people over for dinner or when being asked if you want a drink served in a short or a tall glass. The best types of cups to use to create the illusion of more volume is to find a cup with a narrower bottom and a wider top; similar to an upside down triangle.

5. Taketh Thy Bowl Away

If it’s there, it will be eaten. When people are given food or are in the reachable vicinity of food, they will eat it, regardless if they were full or not. This becomes worse when there’s a distraction such as watching TV or a movie. In one study for example, people were given a bucket of stale popcorn during a film session and after already having consumed a main meal. Not only was a substantial amount of popcorn still eaten, but those participants given larger tubs of popcorn ate 34%3 more than those given medium sized tubs. Regardless if you were full, if you had food at a reachable distance, you will most likely eat it.

When entertaining guests, while it is good to provide some nibbles and food, try to use smaller bowls so that it will not only appear to the crowd that they’ve eaten almost all of the food, but it also gives you a chance to take the bowl away, even if it is under the disguise of ‘refilling’. This gives people time to realise that they are full as there is often a 20 minute delay between when the stomach is actually full and when we know we are full.

6. Food Placement

Out of sight, out of mind. Following from the last point, often times than not, if we can see the food we will eat it. For example, people ate up to 60% more chocolate when they were placed in clear jars on the desk as opposed to opaque jars. People also ate more chocolate if the bowl was directly in front of them than when it was about 2 metres away.4 Which when you think about it is merely a 1-2 steps away. Using this knowledge, when we invite people over to our homes, make sure you hide the snacks and leave out healthier food options. Take this a step further by reorganising the fridge so that the fruits and vegetables and yoghurts are the first thing you or somebody else sees when opening the fridge, rather than being hidden away in the crisper.

7. Make an Effort

Whether or not food consumption is seen as a snack or meal affects whether or not a person will eat a meal later on and also can affect satiety. When serving snacks, it is important to not only offer the right foods, but change several factors when serving that snack. By changing the environment to make a snack appear more like a meal, you can reduce the amount that person is likely to eat overall and also how often they eat throughout the day.5 By making subtle changes such as taking the snack foods out of their packages or containers, using cloth napkins, metal cutlery and ensuring that person sits down for around 30 minutes can create a sense that the snack in question is actually a sizeable meal.

8. Walk by a Gym

A study was done recently examining people’s consumption patterns in the presence of fitness advertisements.6 They found that those participants who viewed fitness ads featuring fit and ideal bodied individuals ate 21.7% less than those watching general commercials. When we view someone exercising or a fit looking individual, we subconsciously become self-conscious, which in turn helps reduce the amount of food. When planning where to eat, try picking a place that bypasses a gym or a park where people commonly exercise. In turn, why not meet your friend in some sporting gear even if you weren’t just at the gym.

9. Information Nation

In terms of manipulation, no other species does as well as humans in manipulating each other into believing an alternate truth. The ‘Health Halo’7 is a common example of this manipulation in everyday life. The idea that Subway is a healthier alternative to other takeaway foods, misconstrue the actual nutritional reality. Due to their small price differential between a 6-inch and a footlong sub as well as their perceived healthiness, many people often opt for the larger sub. However, what they don’t realise is that more often than not, they would be consuming the same amount of calories as that of a Big Mac. In addition, people under this ‘health halo’ also tend to buy more sides and snack more often throughout the day, which can end up increasing their overall energy consumption. The key is to help raise awareness without preaching. Putting forward random facts such as that mentioned above in a jovial manner can help raise the knowledge levels of your friends and in turn reduce poor food decisions. After all, interesting facts have the propensity to stay on the mind and be requoted often. For example, did you know that eggplants contain nicotine?

10. Take the High Road

And by high, I mean longer road. When asking to meet up with a friend, arrange to meet at a further distance from where you want to go. Or pretend like you know where you want to go, but put in a couple of detours. Incidental exercise such as that described is underestimated as a great way to boost energy expenditure throughout the day. These detours can also double as a way to explore parts of the city you might never have gone to. Why not take this a step further and convince your mates that the train, ferry or bus is leaving soon and you must catch it in order to get them to make a dash for it?

Achieving a Healthier Life

Remember that sometimes, small changes can easily lead to big results. You’ll be surprised at just how effective making small changes into people’s environments can help them to eat less, move more and lead a healthier lifestyle. Try some today and feel good knowing you’ve made a difference.

1.      Wansink B, van Ittersum K, Painter JE. ‘Ice cream illusions bowls, spoons, and self-served portion sizes.’ Am J Prev Med. 2006 Sep;31(3):240-3
2.      Wansink, Brian. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2007), New York: Bantam-Dell.

3.      Cornell University (2005, November 10). People Eat More Stale Popcorn If Served In A Big Bucket. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 4 2011

4.      Wansink, Brian, James E. Painter and Yeon-Kyung Lee (2006), “The Office Candy Dish: Proximity’s Influence on Estimated and Actual Candy Consumption,” International Journal of Obesity, 30:5 (May), 871-5.

5.      Shimizu M, Payne CR, Wansink B. ‘When snacks become meals: How hunger and environmental cues bias food intake.’ Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2010 Aug 25;7:63.

6.      van Kleef E, Shimizu M, Wansink B. ‘Food compensation: do exercise ads change food intake?’ Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2011 Jan 28;8:6.

7.      Chandon, Pierre and Brian Wansink (2007), "The Biasing Health Halos of Fast Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions," Journal of Consumer Research, 34:3 (October) 301-314.

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