Whether you are trying to lose weight or just improve your diet, you may be overlooking one of the biggest factors that contributes to healthy — and unhealthy — eating. Your home food environment plays a major role in your eating habits and behaviors.

Think for a minute. How much produce is in the house? How much junk food? Are those foods stored in highly visible or less visible places? How do you cook your food? How often are meals prepared at home? And how often does your family gather around the television while eating a meal?

The women reported having a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in their homes, but there were also a significant number of high calorie snacks and beverages.

How you answer these questions can make a big difference in your health and weight, according to a new study from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and the Cancer Coalition of South Georgia.

Researchers asked questions like these of low-income women living in rural southern Georgia. The women were surveyed three times over a period of 12 months to understand which aspects of their home environments were associated with healthy eating and which weren't. Most of the women were obese; all lived with at least one other person.

Though the women reported having a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in their households, there were also a significant number of high calorie snacks and beverages. On average, the women reported having 14 types of fruits and vegetables in their homes during the past week.

They also had a number of unhealthy or high-calorie snack foods present in the homes (cookies, chips) and sugary beverages, specifically sweet tea or regular soft drinks. Nearly two-thirds of the women reported having high-calorie snack foods in visible places in the home.

Healthy food preparation methods (baking, broiling) were used occasionally, and healthy meal-serving practices were incorporated fairly often.

Watching television during meal times was also common, the women reported.

A healthy home food environment would include few meals purchased outside the home, but 70 percent of women frequently (over two and a half days per week) purchased a family meal, most often from fast food restaurants or takeout.

Changing your home food environment can have a substantial impact on the overall quality of the diets of everyone living in that home, affecting their weight and health. With education and social support, simple changes can improve eating behaviors among family members.

Because the study was specific to one geographical area and involved primarily African Americans, more research is need to determine the effect of the home food environment in promoting healthy eating among different types of communities and populations.

The best strategies work for everyone — put high calorie, high fat snack foods out of sight and easy reach and place healthy snacks (baby carrots, fruit) where they are easy to grab. Eat at home more often, cook using little or no fat and keep portions moderate.

The study was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.