Overweight Dining Companions May Influence How We Eat

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Lots of external factors can throw us off our game when it comes to making healthy food choices and keeping our portions under control. We know, for instance, that the size and even the color of our plates can influence our perceptions of serving size and, consequently, the amount of food we eat. Now a new study, published in the journal Appetite, has found that the size of our dining companions can dramatically affect the amount of food we pile onto our plates and dig into as well.

In order to measure the effect of a heavier (or at least apparently so) eating companion on the diners around him or her, the researchers gathered 82 college undergrads to enjoy a lunch of spaghetti and salad and randomly divided the students into four groups; each group would be joined — preceded, in fact — on the buffet line by a woman who was, unbeknownst to them, an actress.

For two groups, the woman appeared to be her normal average weight (5'5", 126 pounds). In once case, she served herself healthfully (more salad, less pasta); in the other, she served herself unhealthfully (more pasta, less salad). For the other two groups, the same actress donned a prosthetic fat suit that made her look 50 pounds heavier. Again, this time wearing the fat suit, she served herself healthfully for one group and unhealthfully for the other. In all four instances, she called attention to herself and her portion size by asking a question about servings and plates.

Guess what happened? In the instances when the actresses wore the prosthetic suit that made her appear overweight, the students participating in the study served themselves and consumed 31.6 percent more pasta – whether or not she herself had served herself more pasta than salad or vice versa. What’s more, when the actress wore the fat suit and served herself more salad than pasta, the students actually served themselves and consumed 43.5 percent less salad.

The takeaway, study authors say, is that eating with an overweight person may prompt people to go heavier on unhealthy foods and consume fewer healthy foods than they might otherwise because they get distracted from their own healthy-eating goals. Fortunately, the authors do not suggest, as a solution, ditching friends and family members who may be overweight, but rather taking steps to lock in and remain true to your own dietary goals regardless of how others appear or eat around you. That may be, simply, a matter of awareness and advance preparation.

Be aware of menu options before you to go restaurants and plan ahead of time to order something in line with your goals, study coauthor Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, suggests. “Or,” he adds, “if you’re going to a buffet, pre-commit to selecting modest portions of healthy foods.” That way, heavier dining companions – or at least those wearing prosthetic fat suits – will be less likely to have a negative effect on the healthfulness of your food choices.

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