A trip to the average fast food restaurant is far from relaxing: Bright lights, loud music, and louder colors hardly contribute to a tranquil dining experience. This setting might discourage us from planning a romantic dinner at the nearest McDonald’s, but could it also affect how much we eat? A new study suggests the type of lighting and noise in a restaurant influence the amount of food we consume — but not in the ways we might think.

The Study

Cornell University Researchers examined whether changing the atmosphere of a fast food restaurant would affect how much food customers consumed. One section of a Hardee’s fast food restaurant in Illinois was made over into a fine dining establishment, complete with mood lighting, fancy tablecloths, and smooth jazz; the rest of the restaurant remained unchanged. Participants were randomly selected to eat in either the unchanged or the fine-dining section of the restaurant. Researchers then recorded the amount of time customers spent eating and the amount of food they consumed. Participants also rated the quality of the food before leaving. Researchers expected people eating in the fancy section to eat more than customers in the unchanged section because they’d be more inclined to linger over their meals. Turns out participants in the fine dining section did stay longer than people in the other group — but the rest of the results were surprising. Fine diners weren’t any more likely to order extra food, and they actually consumed less food — to the tune of 175 calories — than participants in the fast-food section. They also rated the food as more enjoyable. Bon appetit, indeed!

Should We Trust It?

This is only one study, with one group of people, in one restaurant — so we can’t necessarily generalize these findings. That being said, researchers have long suspected the slower the music in a restaurant, the more likely consumers are to linger over their plates.And psychologists have theorized certain kinds of colorful décor can distract people and make them more likely to gobble down their meals. When it comes to lighting, the science is still unclear. Some suggest the brighter the lighting, the more likely consumers are to eat quickly, while other research indicates lower lighting prompts people to eat more. These latest study findings are surprising because they suggest people are specifically more likely to eat less under low lighting. It’s a good idea to stay mindful any time we’re eating, particularly in fast food restaurants, where the ambiance may encourage us to eat more. Try to relax while eating, and eat slowly so as not to miss fullness cuesPeripheral signals in the control of satiety and hunger. Drazen, DL and Woods, SC. Department of Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Ohio. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 2003 Nov;6(6):621-9. Regardless of the mood music, a food coma is rarely a pleasant experience.