Messy Kitchens Could Make You Eat More

Researchers put participants in the world’s most stressful kitchen for the sake of science

Cluttered Kitchen
A recent study on clutter and overeating gave a new spin to the term "Hell's Kitchen." Johner Images/Johnér Images/Corbis

Feeling peckish? You might be inclined to chalk up a desire to snack on your emotions or the time of day. But new research suggests that hanger and even hunger may not be to blame. Instead, point the finger at your unwillingness to do the dishes, take out the trash or wipe down the countertops in your kitchen. NPR’s Allison Aubrey writes that kitchen chaos could be the culprit.

New research from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab suggests that “chaotic food environments” make people overeat. In a study published in the journal Environment & Behavior, scientists describe an experiment that pitted 98 female students against some seriously disorganized kitchens.

Researchers told the participants that they’d be participating in a study that looked at links between personality and taste preferences. They were sent to two kitchens, one clean and organized, the other “extremely disorganized.” The second kitchen was strewn with dirty dishes, papers, pots and pans, and overseen by an experimenter who arrived late. Participants who did their thing in the cluttered kitchen were also interrupted at one point by a loud, intrusive coworker asking about a professor’s whereabouts.

During their time in the kitchens, participants were asked to write about their feelings about being in or out of control. They were also provided snacks and told to eat as much as they wanted. That’s where the study got interesting—women who wrote about feeling out of control in the messy kitchen ate twice as many calories from sweet foods as women who did the same thing in the peaceful, organized kitchen. And before the writing even began, women waiting in the stressful kitchen ate an average of 53 more calories than their clean kitchen counterparts over the course of ten minutes.

Aubrey notes that researchers didn’t delve into just how stressed the women writing about feeling out of control really were or whether writing about feeling out of control upped the participants’ stress levels. But the research suggests that curbing environmental chaos might be a first step toward reducing overeating.

Spending time in a stressful environment “seems to lead people to think, ‘Everything else is out of control, so why shouldn’t I be?’” the study’s lead author says in a release. So next time you’re feeling a snack attack come on, you might want to look around you—and spend a moment doing the dishes instead.

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