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In Good Company: The Effect of an Eating Companion’s Appearance on Food Intake

Shimizu, Mitsuru, Katie Johnson, & Brian Wansink (2014). In good company. The effect of an eating companion's appearance on food intake. Appetite, 83, 263-268. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.004.

Many social factors influence food consumption including the presence of eating companions. This study examined how dining with overweight individual influenced others unhealthy and healthy food selection and consumption in a natural setting. We posed two conflicting hypothesizes. The first was that in the presence of an overweight individual, participants would serve and eat larger portions of unhealthy food and smaller portions of healthy food, demonstrating a lower health commitment. An alternate posed hypothesis was that when an overweight confederate served herself unhealthily, other participants would serve and eat smaller portions of unhealthy food and larger portions of healthy food, in order to avoid association with the stigmatized overweight individual.

For the study, we observed 82 university undergraduate students self-serving and eating both a relatively healthy food (salad) and a relatively unhealthy food (pasta) in the presence of an overweight versus normal-weight college-aged female. The students participated in one of 4 conditions: the normal weight woman or the same woman wearing a “fat suit” (making her appear overweight), served herself first either healthfully (more salad and less pasta) less-healthfully (more pasta less salad). She was always the first to serve herself and asked those running the study a question to draw attention to herself before adding food to her plate.

Results showed that the body type of the woman influenced the amount of food that participants served and consumed. Participants served significantly less salad when the woman wore a “fat suit” and served herself healthily (more salad and less pasts) than when she was normal-weight and served herself healthily. However, when the she served herself unhealthily (more pasta less salad), her body type did not influence participants’ salad serving.

Regardless of whether the female eating companion served healthily or unhealthily, participants served and ate a larger amount of pasta when she was overweight than when she was normal-weight. These results support the lower health commitment hypothesis, which predicted that participants would serve and eat a larger amount of pasta when eating with an overweight person. Our findings did not support the second, “avoiding stigma” hypothesis. This study provides evidence that both the body type and serving behavior of an eating companion may influence the healthfulness and quantity of our food intake.