Too Noisy to Eat?

Noise Was the Most Irritating Thing About Eating out According to Zagat; School Cafeterias May Suffer from the Same Problem

With each decibel increase in the cafeteria sound level kids ate less fruits and veggies

With each decibel increase in the cafeteria sound level kids ate less fruits and veggies

Some restaurants are so noisy that you need to raise your voice to be heard across the table, hardly the peaceful conversation you’d like to have when dining out.

I often wonder if this is an oversight or by design – there are many ways to make a dining room quieter, and many restaurants seem to choose blaring music, bare surfaces and stripped down finishes that bounce back noise in a way that makes the room loud as if on purpose. Once the room is loud and diners need to shout it becomes a vicious cycle; soon enough everyone’s at high pitch and once ears are on fire you’re itching to leave – which may be good for quicker guest turnover.

Not good for relaxation. Certainly not good for your ears.

But does it affect food choices?

School cafeteria noise affect kids’ food choices

Very few kids in the US eat enough veggies and fruit. Since 30 million kids eat lunch at school through the National School Lunch Program, the school cafeteria can be an important tool to fill in that deficit. Indeed, an effort has been made to serve healthier food at school, and to give kids enough time to take advantage of it.

Ambiance can also make a difference, and some school cafeterias are very loud.

To see if the noise level in the cafeteria affects fruit and veggie consumption researchers led by Matthew Graziose looked and second and third graders in 293 schools. Fruit and vegetable intake was assessed visually and with the aid of photos of the lunch tray before and after the meal, and altogether there were almost 2,600 lunches assessed. Noise level was measured by a Sound Level Meter throughout the lunch period. The findings of the new study appear in the journal Appetite.

The average noise level in the cafeteria was 79.7dBa.

Just to put this in context, this is loud, and just shy of 80dBa, the noise level that may cause hearing loss when kids are exposed to it over extended periods of time.

And the noise level mattered: With each decibel increase in the cafeteria sound level kids ate less fruits and veggies.

Other things that made a difference in this study, by the way: Kids ate more fruit and veggies when more fruits and veggies were offered to them, and having recess before lunch also increased fruit and veggie consumption.

This study just shows an association, it cannot prove that noise makes kids eat less veggies. The researchers hypothesize that kids enjoy a noisy cafeteria less and abandon their fruits and veggies sooner. Noise is distracting, and at some point even uncomfortable. Noise is known to impair our ability to smell, taste and enjoy food. It certainly impairs our ability to have a good conversation.

Another recent study of 382 6-8 year olds found that kids ate more veggies in quieter cafeterias – dining halls in which staff didn’t need to yell in order to communicate with one another.

Can’t hear yourself think

Restaurant goers often complain about noise. According to the latest Zagat Survey, noise was the most irritating thing about eating out, more bothersome than bad service, crowds or high prices. Noise is such a big issue that restaurant critics often include sound level in their reviews. It makes you wonder why restaurants don’t try to make the place less loud. Well, several studies claim that beyond the buzzy atmosphere, loud environments make guests drink more, eat faster, spend more, and then leave sooner.Save

A school cafeteria isn’t a library, and the sound of kids chatting and laughing is welcoming and happy. But it shouldn’t be so loud that kids need to shout to be heard. It shouldn’t be so loud that exposure to it harms kids’ hearing, and damages the hearing of the people that work in that space and are exposed to this noise continuously.

It isn’t clear why most of the cafeterias in the study were so loud; might they be very crowded? I suppose there are ways to make cafeterias pleasantly hospitable to conversation without shushing kids.

Loud cafeterias aren’t good for kids’ hearing, and apparently, not good for their nutrition either.

Dr. Ayala