People tend to order dessert if someone else at the table does. The same is true with drinks or even taking seconds. People tend to be swayed by their dining companions. According to a new study, dining companions’ sizes also influences how much food someone else at the table eats.
There are several things that prime people to eat more food in restaurants, from larger portions costing just a little more than smaller ones, to family style dinner choices to all-you-can eat buffets or salad bars. A new Cornell University research study shows that another element that affects how much someone eats, at home or in a restaurant: the body type of those at the same or a nearby table affects how much someone chooses to eat.
An overweight diner at the table or in close proximity results in people eating more unhealthy options and fewer healthy foods. The researchers theorize that people do not adhere to their own health goals when they are eating near someone who is overweight.
Assistant Professor of Psychology Mitsuru Shimizu from at Southern Illinois University, in Edwardsville, who served as lead author, noted that their findings demonstrate the importance of pre-committing to meal choices before sitting down to eat. Going into a restaurant having an idea what to order makes it “less likely to be negatively influenced by all of the things that nudge you to eat more,” Shimizu added.
Published in Appetite, the study involved 82 undergraduate college students who were recruited to eat a salad and spaghetti lunch. The researchers had a normal-size actress don a prosthesis that added 50 pounds to her build.
Participants were randomly assigned to a scenario in which they viewed the actress serving herself and were then supposed to serve themselves pasta and salad. The four scenarios were that:
- The actress took more salad and less pasta while wearing the fat suit prosthesis,
- She grabbed the same healthy meal without wearing the prosthesis,
- The actress served herself more pasta and less salad while in the fat suit,
- She took the same unhealthy pasta-heavy portions without the prosthesis.
In each scenario, the actress entered the room first. She exclaimed out loud, to draw attention, “Do I need to use separate plates for pasta and salad?” The actress gathered the food for each scenario, sat and then pushed the food around on her plate, not really eating. After lunch, the students were asked whether they noticed the actress and what her size was.
The results surprised the researchers. The researchers found that when the actress appeared overweight (wore the prosthesis), the others took and ate 31.6 percent more pasta, regardless of what the actress served herself. For example, when she ate more salad wearing the prosthesis, the others ate 43.5 percent less salad.
The amount and type of food on the actress’s put plate did not influence the students, her perceived weight did. When she appeared as her normal self but took a lot of pasta, the students did not notice. However, if she had on the prosthesis near them, the students took a lot of food.
These findings show that subconscious eating cues, like a diner’s size, lead people to abandon their normal dietary behavior. The researchers concluded that companions’ sizes influences how much one eats. The study authors suggest the best way to avoid the phenomenon is by determining one’s hunger level before going to eat and using that to plan what food to eat, not anyone else.
By Dyanne Weiss