Unexpected Influence of Big Nearby Eaters

September 30, 2014 in Foodland Chronicles, General, Psychology of Food, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

The research below is a new twist on an old adage my grandmother’s shared with me; “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you what you are.” I just read a little bit about this research and said to myself, “This has Brian Wansink written all over it.”  If you’re not familiar with Dr. Wansink at Cornell University, then you may want to become familiar. He’s the person behind much of the information that we’ve learned about Mindless Eating (and of course author of a book by the same title); which includes all kinds of fun and interesting studies about sizes of dinnerware, bowls that are filled from the bottom and many, many innovative and fun, but informative studies. Even though the lead researcher of the work that I’m writing about today, Mitsuru Shimizu Ph.D. is at The Southern Illinois University, I noticed that he did a post doc with Wansink. (Note that Katie Hancock the second researcher on this paper is also from Cornell University.) So my guess was right. These health psychologists do such interesting work.  First they ask interesting questions, then the set out to find answers in interesting and innovative ways.

The study that I’m writing about today found that people lining up for lunch at a buffet-style meal ate more of a unhealthy pasta dish if the first person in the line appeared to be overweight. What’s really fascinating is that it did not make any difference if the person at the head of the line served herself a healthy or unhealthy meal.

The researchers found that “Both the body type and serving behavior of an eating companion may influence the quality and quantity of our food intake.” Shimizu writes in the journal Appetite (DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.004) “The presence of an overweight eating companion may lead people to eat more unhealthy foods and, in some cases, less healthy foods.”

The researchers had an actor with a “fat suit” that increased her perceived weight by 50 pounds, from a normal 126 pounds to an overweight 176 pounds. She served herself both healthy (more salad and a little pasta) and unhealthy lunch (less salad and more pasta) – with and without the “fat suit.” After the meals were eaten the researchers measured how much of each participant’s dish had been consumed. They found that the first person in line had a real influence on their choices.

Regardless of whether the actress served the healthy or unhealthy servings the participants served and ate a larger amount of pasta when she was “overweight” than when she was “normal” weight. This finding nullifies an old idea that eating with or around overweight people may inspire healthy choices by reminding people of the unwanted stigma of being overweight – the overweight stigma appears totally ineffective in suppressing dishing up more calories – just the reverse happens.

I have many friends and family who are overweight, obese and some even morbidly obese. These people are fascinating and wonderful company; certainly, I’m going to continue to eat with them. But after reading this important research, I will be doing a little self-talk. We all should when we’re eating with or around overweight people. Now that we know how we may unknowingly be led to eat more than we need or make poor food choices by just being around the overweight or obese, we should consciously dial down dipping into high-calorie dishes. Another application of this research may help when we find ourselves in a buffet-style eating establishment where I’ve observed a disproportionally large number of overweight patrons. I believe knowledge is a good thing even if it is bathed in uncomfortable emotions, certainly there’s enough stigma with overweight/obesity, but that does not dial us down, but up.  Let knowledge and prior planning help each of us toward healthier eating!