It will take more than one strategy to reign in Americans’ expanding waistlines. In a recent study, health experts suggest that environmental cues—like art and images—may be powerful tools to encourage people to make healthier choices, and possibly help address the obesity epidemic.
In the new research, published in the journal Appetite, researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland did two studies to see whether viewing the notoriously thin sculptures by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti had any impact on how a person ate afterward.
The first study tested how much 114 people ate after being exposed to a picture of thin sculptures. Some of the men and women went into a room where a screensaver of Giacometti’s sculpture Piazza was projected on the wall from an experimenter’s laptop. The other group didn’t see the screensaver. The men and women were then given either blueberries or chocolates and were told they could eat as much as they wanted, and to rate the healthfulness of the snacks. People who were exposed to the sculptures ate less chocolate and blueberries compared to the people who didn’t see the photograph.
In the second study, about 60 people were asked to list the first word that came to mind when they were shown fragmented words related to health or weight on a computer screen. Before completing the task, some of the people in the study were shown a screensaver of Giacometti’s sculptures, while others were shown a blank screen.
The researchers found that people who were considered “restrained eaters,” which meant they often tried to lose weight, came up with more weight-related words if they were shown the sculptures, compared to restrained eaters who were not shown the images.
People who looked at Giacometti’s art made more weight-related connections and ate less, the researchers concluded. This was even more pronounced in people who dieted often.
The choice of Giacometti’s sculptures, which depict impossibly skinny figures, was deliberate. In previous studies, these particular images have been shown to affect people’s eating decisions. The researchers wanted to understand whether that was because they trigger people to remember their weight-related goals.
Based on the findings, the study authors say environmental cues may nudge people in the right direction when it comes to make food choices, but there’s no need to display Giacometti’s sculptures around the office break room.
“It must be acknowledged that human bodies with figures similar to these [Giacometti sculptures] would be seriously underweight,” says study author Aline E. Stampfli of the University of Bern‘s department of consumer behavior. “Thus, they would be perceived as less attractive and thus less motivating than figures…of normal body mass. Using healthier-looking human figures could work better than skinny human figures.”
The researchers argue that people who are trying to lose weight are often sabotaged by their food environments. In many countries, cues to eat and buy more fast and processed food are ubiquitous. More research is needed to determine how art may play a role in encouraging healthy eating, but the researchers argue that environmental cues should be considered as a way to help people trying to lose weight stay on track.