A new study from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, has found the the less you are physically involved in obtaining your food the more you are likely to eat unhealthily.
The study involved five experiments where volunteers were placed in a lab with access to relatively unhealthy treats and snacks and were observed to see what portion sizes they chose to eat in different contexts, such as when they could help themselves to as much as they wanted or when portion sizes were dictated for them. The researchers found that when volunteers were given the chance to choose their own portion sizes but not be involved in the actual serving process, volunteers chose larger portions than when they themselves were physically involved in the portioning out.
For instance, when big bowls of Reese’s Pieces was left on a table for volunteers to serve themselves, no one did, but when the treats were already portioned out in small cups about one third of the volunteers ate them.
The researchers surmise that being less physically involved in the portioning out allows people to feel less responsible for the act of indulging in the treat. ”
When we are dispensing frozen yogurt from a machine or slicing up a piece of cake ourselves, we are actively choosing how much we’re taking and how unhealthy we are eating, so we feel a sense of responsibility,” says Brent McFerran, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser and study co-author. “However, when it’s served by someone else, we don’t feel as guilty for unhealthy eating and indulging, because we forego some personal responsibility.”
This greater inclination to eat potentially unhealthy foods when not physically involved in the serving bodes poorly for our restaurant-going activities, say the study’s authors, as these situations allow us to completely absolve ourselves of both controlling portion sizes and, according to this study, deciding not to eat “the whole thing.” “More frequent unhealthy restaurant choices could lead to increased frequency and size of unhealthy choices, ultimately contributing to weight gain,” say the study’s authors, whose work appears this month in the Journal of Marketing Research.
Researchers are focusing more on the subconscious roots of our eating behaviours in order to figure out how best to promote healthy eating. A recent study in the U.K. found that people who volunteered to use portion-stencilled utensils, plates and bowls at home actually became less apt to give themselves large portions of the more unhealthy foods like chips and more likely to up their portion sizes of vegetables.
The study published in the British Journal of Nutrition involved 29 obese adults who had completed a community weight-loss program and were asked to use the serving spoons, utensils and crockery marked out serving and portion sizes over a two-week period, with minimal health professional contact. After two weeks, 21 of the 29 participants had lost weight and, overall, portion sizes for vegetables went up while sizes for starches and chips went down. Participants also noted that the visual cues helped them learn about portion control.