Can dining with certain people or in certain places really make you eat more?
A fascinating new study — “The Fat Suit Study” — by researchers at Cornell University in New York highlights how the size of those around you can influence what and how much you eat.
For the study, researchers recruited 82 university students and invited them to an all-you-can-eat pasta and salad buffet. They also enlisted a professional actress to be present and in some cases wear a 50 pound prosthesis — i.e. a “fatsuit — and thus appear overweight.
Participants were assigned to one of four scenarios wherein they watched the actress either:
Serve herself a healthy meal (mostly salad and a bit of pasta) wearing the additional weight;
Serve herself a healthy meal without the added weight;
Serve herself a less than healthy meal (mostly pasta, not much salad) wearing the weight; or
Serve herself a less than healthy meal without the added weight
In all cases, the participants watched as the actress served herself and then served themselves as much pasta and salad as they desired. Their total food consumption and their choice of food was compared.
Findings of the study showed that when the actress wore the prosthesis and appeared overweight, participants served and consumed 31 per cent more pasta, regardless of how she served herself. When the actress wore the prosthesis and ate the healthy meal that included more salad, the participants actually consumed 43.5 per cent less salad.
To summarize, seeing or having an overweight individual present increased overall unhealthy food intake. Seeing an overweight individual serve and consume healthy food also decreased healthy food intake in favour of more unhealthy choices. Both findings confirm previous research that suggests that the body type and eating behaviours of those around us can and do influence our food choices and intake.
The take-home message here is to be (consciously) aware of how hungry you feel before you eat as well as to acknowledge that our eating behaviours may be (unconsciously) influenced by those around us.