Food & Drink

September 2, 2014

To Your Health: Is your big, fat refrigerator making you big and fat?

Americans' bigger refrigerators may lead people to eat more and pack on extra pounds.

We Americans have the biggest refrigerators in the world and we’re the second-fattest nation on the planet (thanks, Mexico!). Coincidence? I think not.

And neither does Brian Wansink, whose study of warehouse club shoppers found that the more food we have stored in our homes – in the fridge, cupboards and hidden where the kids can’t find it – the more we tend to eat.

“If you’re looking for a snack and there’s a 36-bag variety pack of chips in the cabinet, odds are you’re going to decide you want a bag of chips,” said Wansink, professor of behavioral economics at Cornell University and author of “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life” (William Morrow).

One place where our urge to overeat is indulged is, of course, the refrigerator. While the average American refrigerator-freezer has 17.5 cubic feet of volume according to a recent article in The Atlantic, most new, full-size models sold by Sears and Walmart have 25 cubic feet or more.

“In general, the larger the refrigerator, the more we tend to keep in it,” Wansink said. “And the more food options there are, the more likely something is to catch your eye as being tasty.”

Big refrigerators are part and parcel of the big American home. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2010 the average American home had almost 2,400 square feet of space. That’s down a bit from the mid-aughts high, but still a whopping increase from the average of 1,660 square feet in 1973.

However, when Wansink looked to see whether those who lived in homes with larger kitchens (and, it was assumed, larger refrigerators) were themselves larger, he found no correlation. He explains this by noting that people who live in large homes usually have higher incomes and so are likely to be more educated about healthy living and able to afford things like gym memberships and healthier foods.

But then he did a second study where people were randomly assigned a computer containing virtual refrigerators. Both types contained the same kinds of virtual foods, but the big ones had half again as much. When asked to prepare meals from their refrigerators, the big fridge group made bigger meals.

Other than buying a European-style (smaller) refrigerator, what’s a good American to do?

The next time you’re shopping for a new fridge, steer clear of the side-by-side models. “With these you tend to open both doors at once, looking for something to eat,” he said. “And since foods in the freezer side tend to be less healthy – ice cream and the like – you’re more likely to make a bad choice.” In another study discussed in his book, people in homes with side-by-side refrigerators weighed 4 to 8 pounds more than those with more traditional models.

Another suggestion is to rethink storage. Ever notice how at the supermarket the pricier items are kept at eye level? And how the kid foods are lower down, at their eye level? That’s because according to Supermarket Psychology 101, shoppers are more likely to select foods that are visible and easy to reach.

To promote healthier eating at home, move healthy foods like cut vegetables and fruit onto an easy-to-see shelf. In studies, kids ate two-thirds more produce when produce was visible rather than hidden away in the crisper.

And don’t worry about it going bad faster. “It’s a fallacy that fruits and vegetables last longer in the crisper,” Wansink said.; Twitter: @RichardMarini

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