Bigger Friends, Bigger Appetites? (The Fat Suit Study)

by The Health Sciences Academy — Get free science updates here.

Cornell’s Fat Suit Study Illustration

Just when you thought you had your eating habits all figured out, be ready to be both entertained and enlightened by the freshly published Fat Suit Study, out of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.

Quite apropos for today’s holiday of (over)eating, wouldn’t you say?

Here’s the skinny:

Food psychology researchers lined up 82 undergraduate college students and one secret actress for a pasta and salad lunch study.

Those 82 students were randomly assigned to 4 different eating scenarios featuring the actress with and without her prosthesis, a “fat suit” that added 50 pounds (ca. 23 kilos) to her normally average weight.

She did this funny thing of calling attention to herself by speaking loudly and then immediately followed it by serving herself a helping of pasta or salad.

Sometimes she served herself quite healthily and… sometimes she really overindulged.

The results were pretty staggering.

You might be surprised to find out what can actually prime your brain to eat more or eat less in relation to your eating companions and those around you.

The good news: it can be easily remedied by some simple, preparatory self-assessment before you even leave the house.

Read on for the real dish on dining influences!

The food we eat and the company we keep

Did you ever stop to think of how socially connected we are to the food we eat and the company we keep?

Reflect for a just a moment on your personal, social relationship to food. Do you think you could (unconsciously) end up eating more when dining with “larger” friends?

Conversely, do you think you may end up eating less when dining with slimmer, more slender friends?

If so, what is the cost of these subconscious actions in relation to your own health goals?

This could be a worthwhile consideration for yourself and/or a really good share for your client or those you help. It reveals how much the company you are with influences how much you fill your plate. Or not.

It’s part of the contagion effect concept, whereby our eating behaviours can be influenced involuntarily whilst in the company of others.

It turns out that this food contagion is a real thing.

Commitments and contagions – where’s the line?

Remember we previously spoke about the social contagion effect with respect to goals of moving more and eating better when trying to install new habits?

‘Goal contagion’ is a scientific explanation that has been shown by researchers to inspire new behaviours unconsciously. Research has shown that a goal can be activated in your subconscious, without you even knowing that the goal is influencing you.

This applies to eating food too.

The fascinating part is that your environment, the contextual information that your brain receives, who you listen to, and even the new things that you observe or learn can help activate unconscious goals and behaviours. So, without noticing, we feel inclined to introduce new behaviours. (Even if we’re entertained by some loud-mouthed lady in the buffet line.)

The influence of eating near or with an overweight person

Let’s get back to the results of that Fat Suit Study.

In that Cornell University study, recently published in the journal Appetiteresearchers found that when the actress wore the fat suit, and looked overweight, the other participants served and ate 31.6% more pasta, regardless of whether she served herself mostly pasta or mostly salad.

Even when the actress served herself more salad whilst wearing the fat suit, the other participants served and ate 43.5% less salad.

The not-so-skinny findings illuminated the fact that people may serve and eat larger portions of unhealthy foods and smaller portions of healthy foods when eating with an overweight companion.

Why? Simply because we unconsciously come to be less in tune with our own health goals.

The researchers that conducted the Fat Suit Study summarised their findings with the tagline “the larger your friends, the larger your appetite” and even developed this illustration to get their message across:

Fat Suit Study Illustration - Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University

Fat Suit Study Illustration – Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University

So what to do?

Think about it: family meals, power lunches, and business dinners. Whilst food is by no means the only way to build stronger relationships with friends, colleagues, family and community, we’re immersed in the social eating dilemma every day.

If we want to stay on point with our own health goals, then we must consider those preparatory adjustments that will help us self-serve skinny, rather than plump.

One of the Fat Suit Study researchers, Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, tells us that we can easily avoid getting into such a conundrum. He advises us to do something sincere and simple: assess your level of hunger before even going into the restaurant.

He recommends:

Look up the menu beforehand and select a meal that suits your dietary goals. 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.

Be real with yourself and clear in your idea of what you’re about to walk into. This can help you plan accordingly.

How about you?

Have you ever experienced this? Has a client ever revealed this scenario to you? Maybe you were not even aware of it, but now you can evaluate whether the physical appearance of those you dine with has played a role in what and how much you eat.

Join in the community conversation below with your comment to let us know and help each other out. And please share this with someone who might benefit from learning how eating companions may be influencing their behaviours around food.

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