Mellow setting puts diners in a mood to . . . eat less

Let's face it: Eating at a fast food restaurant is not about the ambience. It's fast, and its music and lighting seem geared to on-the-fly dining.

But did it ever occur to you that meals served amid bright lights and intrusive contempo-jazz might contribute to overeating? Or that dimming the lights a tad and soothing the pace of that frenetic soundtrack might have the opposite effect? A new study, published recently in Psychological Reports: Human Resources and Marketing, says it does - and fast-food restaurants could institute such changes without fear of losing money.

Two "food psychologists" - Brian Wansink of Cornell University and Koert van Ittersum of the University of Georgia - were allowed to take over a Hardee's restaurant in Champaign, Ill., and did a little redecorating before welcoming in customers.

As customers arrived some were randomly directed to the usual Hardee's seating area: bright lights, upbeat music, energizing primary colors and hard, noise-reflecting surfaces. Others were directed to a spruced up area with window shades, white tablecloths, indirect lighting, tasteful plants, candles on the tables and paintings on the walls. Soft, instrumental jazz-ballads replaced Hardee's customary soundtrack.

When Wansink and van Ittersum compared the orders and intake of the customers in the Hardee's atmosphere to those who sat in Hardee's soft-lighting-and-music area, they found the diners ordered the same number of calories worth of food and spent about the same amount. But the latter group ate it more slowly - 4.7 percent more slowly - and left more of the food they'd ordered uneaten.

On average, the soft-lights-and-music crowd consumed 133 fewer calories than did the fast-food customers in the unmodified Hardee's restaurant area (525 calories for the fast food diners vs. 658 calories for the fast food customers).