How to control yourself at a buffet!

The Mail reports that: “The secret to retaining self-control at a buffet? Eat the fruit first: People who start with healthier foods are less tempted by junk later on.”

The study looked at an assumption about human psychology – when it comes to a buffet do people tend to eat most of the food they see first? And if so, could altering the layout of a buffet influence healthier eating behaviours?

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This research involved 124 diners at a conference. Two identical breakfast buffet tables were set up on opposite sides of the room – one where fruit, yoghurt and granola were lined up first, one where the bacon and eggs and fried potatoes came first. The diners were randomly sent to one of the lines as they entered.

Researchers found that the order food was presented did influence what was taken, with the first foods a person encountered being more likely to be chosen. So it was possible to promote a healthier eating choice by the design of the buffet.

I appreciate you might be reading this thinking it’s fairly unsurprising, but how many of you make a conscious effort when deciding what to eat first at a buffet!? Maybe it’s down to those responsible providing buffets, those who have an interest in improving public health, to start thinking about how they lay things out.

The research does has scope to be applicable to millions of people everyday, buffets form a big part of social dining, as an increase of “all you can eat” restaurants are opening up offering great value for money. Slightly changing the layouts of these buffets could influence the likelihood of someone choosing healthier options.

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The research aimed to find out:

  • Are diners more likely to take the first foods they see?
  • Does taking the first item trigger subsequent choices?
  • Are there differences in the total number of foods chosen between the two lines?

On the “unhealthy line” cheesy eggs were served first, followed by fried potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yoghurt, and fruit. Food on the other “healthy” line was presented in the opposite order: fruit, low-fat yoghurt, low-fat granola, cinnamon rolls, bacon, fried potatoes, and cheesy eggs.

The researchers found that overall food order influenced what people selected.

  • The first foods people encountered were more likely to be chosen than the last foods they encountered.
  • There was a higher chance that people took the first option offered, regardless of whether it was healthy (fresh cut fruit) or less healthy (cheesy eggs)
  • 86% took fruit when it was the first thing offered, compared to 54% taking fruit when it was the last thing offered
  • 75% took cheesy eggs when they were offered first, while only 29% took them when offered last.
  • Overall 66% of a person’s plate was made up by the first three items they encountered.
  • The previous item selected also influenced what next item was selected, particularly in the “unhealthy line” (for example, choosing eggs was likely to be followed by choosing bacon).
  • When less healthy foods were offered first that people took more different food types.

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The main thing this study shows is not surprising – people take what is offered to them. If a hungry person is presented with fruit they will likely take it while they have the chance – perhaps not seeing what will be offered later in the line – similarly if they are presented with fried breakfast options they will likely take them. Especially if you are told you are not going to get the chance to come back and take them again, as the people in this study were. It seems fairly obvious that you will then select other items that will go with what you have already taken.

The idea that serving healthy foods at a buffet first could “help make us slim by design” would be all well and good if all of our meals were presented to us each day at a buffet. As the majority of us attend buffets rather infrequently, they are unlikely to have much influence on population overweight and obesity. Though using this method in environments where buffet lunches are a regular fixture, such as schools or colleges, could have some impact on health.

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