Slimmer by Design

05/28/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Requiring fast food restaurants like McDonald's to post calorie counts on menus sounds like a great way to educate consumers and help them make better choices. The strategy is based on the assumption that if you actually know how unhealthy a Big Mac is, you would order something healthier instead.

For the record, a Big Mac has 550 calories, and it's even not the highest calorie item on the menu. The Big Breakfast and hotcakes with large biscuit takes the cake at 1,150 calories.

The problem with posting calorie counts is that it doesn't change people's habits. In fact, some studies show people are chowing down even more.

Bryan Bollinger, a professor of marketing, explains the paradox of why information rarely translates into action:

There are very few cases where social scientists have documented that giving people information has changed their behavior very much. Changing prices and changing convenience have big impact. Providing information doesn't.

It's why education isn't always the best policy.

A new study suggests a more effective way to encourage healthy eating. It is called the C.A.N. approach. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand lab, explains:

A healthy diet can be as easy as making the healthiest choice the most Convenient, Attractive, and Normal.

Instead of giving people information about calories, focus on design and availability instead.

If you want to know the secrets of healthier eating, think of the kitchen fruit bowl. A fruit bowl makes fruit more convenient, attractive, and normal to eat than if the same fruit were in the bottom of the refrigerator.

According to the Cornell study, slim people don't have more willpower than the rest of us. The main difference is that their environment facilitates making healthy choices. For example, instead of a candy bar, healthy snacks like a piece of fruit or carrot sticks are easy to reach (Convenient), enticingly displayed (Attractive), and appear like an obvious choice (Normal).

When fruit is put in a nice bowl next to your car keys -- or when a cafeteria puts it next to a well-lit cash register -- it becomes more convenient, attractive, and normal to grab a banana than the chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in the far back of the freezer. When restaurants give the high-profit shrimp salad appetizer an enticing name, highlight it on the menu, and have the waitress point it out as a special, it becomes more convenient, attractive, and normal to order that than the deep-fried onion rings on the back of the menu.

Wansink has suggestions for school cafeterias too:

If a school wants children to drink more white milk than chocolate milk, they can make white milk more convenient (put it in the front of the cooler), more attractive (sell it in a shapely bottle), or more normal (give it half of the cooler space instead of a small corner of the cooler).

Forget counting calories. Get slim by design.

Your assignment: Place an apple on your desk every day for the next week and throw out that chocolate bar in the back of your desk drawer.

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