A new study has found a link between a person’s appetite and the size of their dining companions or people around them.
The larger those companions, the larger the appetite and the more apt people are to make unhealthy food choices, according to researchers from Cornell University.
The study, published in the journal Appetite, found that people were more likely to choose unhealthy foods and eat more of those foods when an overweight diner was nearby.
The findings emphasize the importance of “pre-committing” to meal choices before going into a restaurant, according to Dr. Mitsuru Shimizu, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University and lead author of the study.
“If you go into the restaurant knowing what you will order, you’re less likely to be negatively influenced by all of the things that nudge you to eat more,” he said.
For the study, researchers recruited 82 undergraduate college students to eat a spaghetti and salad lunch. They also hired an actress to wear a prosthesis that added 50 pounds to her normally average weight, known as a “fat suit.”
Each of the 82 students was randomly assigned to one of four scenarios: The actress served herself healthfully (more salad and less pasta) while wearing the prosthesis; she served herself the same healthy meal without the prosthesis; she served herself less healthfully (more pasta and less salad) while wearing the prosthesis; or she served herself the same less healthy meal without the prosthesis.
Participants in each scenario watched the actress serving herself and then served themselves pasta and salad.
The researchers found that when the actress wore the prosthesis, and appeared overweight, the students ate 31.6 percent more pasta regardless of whether she served herself mostly pasta or mostly salad. When she wore the prosthesis and served herself more salad, the other participants actually ate 43.5 percent less salad.
The findings demonstrate that people may eat larger portions of unhealthy foods when eating with an overweight person because they are less in tune with their own health goals, according to the researchers.
This phenomenon can be avoided by assessing your level of hunger before going to a restaurant and planning your meal accordingly, according to the researchers.
“Look up the menu beforehand and select a meal that suits your dietary goals,” said Brian Wansink, Ph.D.,director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, co-author of the study, and author of the new book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.
“Or, if you’re going to a buffet, pre-commit to selecting modest portions of healthy foods and with that goal in mind, those around you will have less of a negative influence over what you eat.”