Picture the ultimate setting for a romantic dinner: a nice Italian restaurant. Soft music gently plays in the background as you take your seats at a quiet table in the back. And, of course, there's candlelight. Ya gotta have candlelight. The ambient lighting should be so dim that the flickering glow of the candles casts dreamy shadows in your lover's eyes. (Sigh.)
Wake up, pally. It's time for a dose of cold, harsh reality.
In the first place, I'm old, capisci? I took my wife to one of those faux-Italian places. It was so dark I had to break out both my reading glasses and the flashlight on my iPhone just so I could read the menu. Nothing dashes romantic fervor like squinting.
In the second place, a bunch of scientists have come out with a study that says people who eat in dim lighting are more likely to make unhealthy food choices. Okay, so maybe science is worse than squinting. Anyway, a group of unromantic spoilsports, publishing in Science Daily and the Journal of Marketing Research, have recently come to the conclusion that people eating in well-lit restaurants are sixteen to twenty-four percent more likely to order healthy food than those who dine in dimly lit rooms.
Researchers went to four fast-casual chain places and examined the orders of 160 patrons. They found that people who ate in brighter light made brighter choices; things like white meat, grilled or baked fish, and vegetables. Dimly-lit diners, they averred, ate more fried foods and desserts.
Interestingly, when they replicated the results in the lab, using 700 college-age students as lab rats, the researchers discovered that jacking up the dimmer diners on caffeine caused them to make better choices, too. So, the conclusion concludes, it's not really the light level but the degree of alertness that influences eating decisions. That said, University of South Florida lead study author Dr. Dipayan Biswas explains, “We feel more alert in brighter rooms and therefore tend to make more healthful, forward-thinking decisions.” Hmmm..... I wonder if the good doctor has ever seen a dimly lit McDonald's. But I digress.
So should you assiduously avoid restaurants that are not lit like a high school cafeteria? Not necessarily, says study co-author Dr. Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “Dim lighting isn't all bad,” says Wansink. “Despite ordering less-healthy foods, you actually end up eating slower, eating less and enjoying the food more.” Which is kind of why nice restaurants use dim lighting in the first place: they're not really trying to kill you with unhealthy food choices, they just want you to hang around and enjoy the dining experience. Notice that on the other hand, brightly lit eateries are usually the ones that try to hurry you out the door.
What's the takeaway on all this? According to Dr. Wansink, the best way to avoid overindulging and making poor food choices when dining in dimly-lit places is to do what you can to make yourself feel alert. Now whether this means dumping ice water over your head when you sit down at the table or putting in earbuds and blasting yourself with heavy metal music, I don't know. Neither option is really conducive to romance, you know what I mean? Coffee works for some people, but you're kind of out of luck in a real Italian place where they don't serve coffee until after the meal. Crafty Italians. They put you in a food coma and then jolt you with espresso just in time to pay the bill. Caffeinated soda? Sure, if you don't mind ingesting a pound of sugar and packing on an extra gazillion calories. Maybe you could just pop a NoDoz before you order. I don't know.
I say go for it. Make a reservation at the place that's so dark the maître d' wears a miner's helmet. Just keep science in mind and remember the old adage: “Be alert! The country needs more lerts.”