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Dining in the Dark Makes You Order Unhealthy Food

According to a recent study, lighting plays a huge role in the decision-making process of unsuspecting diners.

by Nick Rose
01 June 2016, 8:00am

Think of your favorite old-school steakhouse or candle-lit Italian restaurant.

You step into these cozy little spaces which emit just enough of a warm glow to make you forget what time, and in some cases, what year it is. Slowly, the lights get dimmer and the ambient noise gets louder. The next thing you know, you are a couple of bottles of wine deep and seriously mulling the dessert and digestif menus.

What was intended to be a quick bite has turned into an expensive and indulgent marathon. "How the hell did that happen?" you ask yourself. Well, it seems that science is finally catching on to what crafty restaurateurs have know for a very long time.

According to a recent study, lighting plays a huge role in the decision-making process of unsuspecting diners. The results, to be published in Journal of Marketing Research, suggest that dim lights are a way of getting patrons to let their guard down and make impulsive decisions.

READ MORE: Steakhouses Are a Lot Like Hip-Hop

More specifically, people eating in well-lit restaurants were 16 to 24 percent more likely to order healthy food than those in dimly lit rooms. Conversely, according to sales records, diners in dimly lit rooms ordered 39 percent more calories.

The research team were able to come to this conclusion by looking at the orders of 160 restaurant patrons eating at four "casual chain restaurant" locations. Those in the brighter rooms ordered tended order dishes like grilled or baked fish, vegetables, and white meat, whereas their low-lit counterparts opted for more fried food and desserts.

So, what is it about well-lit rooms that makes them more conducive to healthy eating decisions? Alertness is the causal factor, according to the authors of the study. "We feel more alert in brighter rooms and therefore tend to make more healthful, forward-thinking decisions," lead author Dipayan Biswas explained in a press release.

To be sure, results were then replicated in a lab. Another interesting find: When administered caffeine, those in dimly lit rooms also began to make healthier choices. By isolating alertness with a low-light/caffeine control group, researchers concluded that it was not the lights per se, but rather the alertness that they create, that makes dining decision more... enlightened.

But dim lights are not all bad; in fact, they were associated with more enjoyment and smaller intake during meals. "Dim lighting isn't all bad," said 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."

One useful way to interpret and apply these results, as far as we can tell, would be to down a lot of coffee before going to your favourite old-school steakhouse or Italian restaurant.