Buffet Behavior in Lean vs Overweight People

buffet_eattipsAt Obesity Week in Atlanta, GA, Brian Wansink, PhD, a Professor at Cornell University, gave a fascinating keynote lecture on eating behavior entitled, “Slim by Design: From Mindless Eating to Mindlessly Eating Better”. Dr Wansink’s research focuses on how micro-environments influence what and how much people eat and how much they enjoy it.

Wansink conducted a study on eating behavior at Chinese buffets in order to understand what normal weight people do differently from heavy people. This study involved 12 researchers observing 370 buffet diners in 7 states. The researchers used what he called “secret agent tools” to study subjects behavior so that they wouldn’t know that they were being studied. As subjects walked into the diner they had stand on a stealth weight mat before being seated, and their height was measured with a laser device, so the body mass index of each subject was calculated. They then compared the detailed behaviors of the lightest third to the heaviest third.

They found 5 behaviors that the lightest third of the diners showed, compared to the heaviest third. The lighter diners:

1. Sat an average of 16 feet further from the buffet than heavy people
2. Sat facing away from the buffet whereas the heavy people sat facing it
3. Peruse all of the items on the buffet and then take a plate, in contrast to heavy people who take the plate first
4. Use a smaller plate
5. Were more likely to use chop sticks versus a fork

Wansink then presented data from another study on buffet behavior, this time looking at whether the layout of the buffet could affect choices. He conducted at a 4 day health and wellness retreat at a resort in Utah. The subjects were 250 health and fitness experts, who had watched a 60 min talk on eating behavior the night before this breakfast buffet experiment. At the breakfast buffet, the attendees were split into two different breakfast lines. Each line had the same food choices, but the items were presented in opposite orders. Line one presented fruit first and cheesy eggs and bacon last, with several other items in between, and line two started with cheesy eggs and bacon, and ended with fruit. Researchers analyzed the foods that people chose and found the order of presentation of the food had a substantial impact. The first 3 items on the buffet comprised 68 percent of the entire food on the plate, and the first food was chosen 11 percent more than the third food on the buffet.

The researchers’ observations are great in terms of coming up with changes that may help people make healthier choices by modifying behaviors in “small” ways. Tips like using a smaller plate at the buffet, walking around the whole table to see all the food choices before taking a plate, and sit far from the buffet and facing away from it, are choices that everyone can make. They could help turn a buffet from a potentially dangerous over-eating situation, to a more moderate meal – without feeling deprived.

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