College students were more likely to serve themselves more pasta and
less salad when a fellow diner was wearing an overweight prosthesis,
or “fat suit,” in the study conducted at Cornell University in New
When eating with an overweight person, people not only ate “a larger
amount of unhealthy food, but they ate a smaller amount of healthy
food,” said Mitsuru Shimizu, assistant professor of psychology at
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, in an email.
Shimizu, who led the study, and his co-authors think the presence of
the overweight person derailed the students’ intentions to eat
“healthy,” although the researchers don’t say why a heavy dining
companion would have that effect.
There are many unconscious influences on how much people eat, the
study team points out in its report. For example, they note that
simply eating with another person can cause diners to eat up to 44
percent more than when eating alone.
“While we often have good intentions before we go to a restaurant
(I'm going to get the side salad instead of fries), when we arrive,
a lot of cues can prime us to want to indulge. These include, the
smells, what our companion eats, and now perhaps even the weight of
our companion,” Brian Wansink told Reuters in an email.
Wansink, who also worked on the study, is the author of “Slim by
Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.”
The researchers selected 82 university students for the study. Half
of the students served themselves food in the presence of a woman in
a prosthesis, while the other half encountered the same woman with
no body alterations.
Within each of these groups, the students were split again. Half saw
the woman serve herself more salad and less pasta and the others saw
her serve more pasta and less salad.
After watching the woman serve herself, the students made their own
food selections while the researchers observed.
The results showed that students who observed the woman in the
prosthesis served themselves 31 percent more pasta, regardless of
how the woman served herself. The students also served themselves 43
percent less salad when the woman wore the prosthesis and served
herself more salad.
Shimizu said the presence of the overweight eating companion
“deactivated participants' goal to eat healthier (we generally have
unconscious goal to eat healthy).”
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“The study is generally well-conducted,” according to Brent McFerran
of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, who studies
how the behavior of others influences consumer choices.
One limitation, the researchers acknowledge in their report, is the
weight of the participants themselves. Only two out of the 82
students were obese, while the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention estimate that 34.9 percent of U.S. adults are obese.
This factor limits how broadly the results might apply, they said.
They also hope to continue their research using a wider range of
foods for participants to choose from.
The researchers note that the solution to the phenomenon seen in the
study is not to avoid eating with overweight companions, but to
combat the lowered focus on health goals with awareness.
Shimizu said that while the influence takes place unconsciously,
simply knowing about this effect “should decrease the impact.”
Wansink’s advice is simple: “Commit to what and how much you want to
eat before you get to the restaurant. Really commit to it.”
McFerran agreed and advises diners to “order or serve him/herself
first.” The first person to order or take food, he said, “sets a
social norm about what is a ‘good’ or ‘normal’ amount to take. Who
wants to be the only person to order dessert? Not many people.”
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1ndHjaP Appetite, online September 16, 2014.
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