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Think: What food is sitting out in your kitchen right now?
According to new research in the journal Health Education & Behavior, it could say a lot about the size of your waistline.
Researchers from Cornell University and The Ohio State University asked a nationwide sample of U.S. households to report on the foods (cookies, candy, chips, crackers, pretzels, cold cereal, and fruit) and appliances (a toaster, blender, or food processor) that were on their kitchen counters. They were also asked to give their height and weight.
Here’s what scientists found: People who had a fruit bowl on their kitchen counter were more likely to have a lower BMI than those who didn’t. Packaged foods (chips, crackers, pretzels, and cold cereal) on the countertop were linked with a higher BMI, and cookies were linked with a higher BMI in men.
In a second study, scientists conducted home visits of 210 households, in which they photographed the foods and appliances that were out on their kitchen countertops. They also recorded participants’ height and weight.
This study showed that women who had soda out on their countertops were 26 pounds heavier than those who didn’t, and those who had breakfast cereal out on their countertops weighed 20 pounds more than those who didn’t. People with cookies on their countertops were about eight pounds heavier, but those with a fruit bowl out weighed about 13 pounds less.
Women with a normal weight were also more likely to have a designated cupboard for snacks.
“We often eat with our eyes, not our stomachs,” he tells Yahoo Health. “If a food is out and available, a person will have more of an urge to consume that food.”
Registered dietitian nutritionist Beth Warren, author of Living a Real Life with Real Food, agrees. “All too often I hear from patients that they ate a certain food because ‘it was there,’” she tells Yahoo Health.
While it may not make a big impact on your waistline to have a stocked cookie jar on your countertop for a day or two, it can really add up over time.
But … cereal? The breakfast staple was just behind soda in terms of higher weight correlation, and eclipsed the impact of cookies on the counter.
It sounds shocking, and study co-author Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of the book
tells Yahoo Health that it was at first.
“We initially did this thinking that we would find that having candy and chips sitting out would be associated with people weighing a lot more,” he says. “It was surprising that the candy didn’t have any impact but the cereal did." (For the purpose of the study all cereals were considered equal, although Wansink says they spotted more sugary cereals and granolas than healthier low-sugar, high-fiber options.)
Wansink cites cereal’s "health halo,” i.e. the belief that it’s health food, for the link — even though it can be packed with sugar and calories.
We also eat cereal in larger amounts and often do so out of habit, Accardi says, adding, “two to three bowls of cereal a day would be worse than having one cookie.”
“There is something about cereal being extremely ‘munchie’ and difficult to portion,” says Warren. She points out that a common habit — eating cereal out of the box — can easily lead to overeating and filling up on a food that’s typically high in simple carbohydrates and added sugar (both of which can lead to weight gain).
Experts are fans of leaving out a fruit bowl on the counter as a reminder to eat the produce before it goes bad, not to mention make nutritionally sound choices.
And maybe start storing your cereal in a cabinet. “We have a saying: ‘If you want to be skinny, you do what skinny people do,’” says Wansink. “In this study, skinny people did not have cereal sitting on the counter.”