Beyond the usual advice about less food and more exercise, the study suggests that consciously replacing unhealthy cues with healthy ones in the home could have a real impact on a person’s BMI, especially for women.
The types of ready-to-eat foods on a kitchen countertop could also hint at the weight of the people in the home, particularly women.
The study looked at photographs of more than 200 kitchens in Syracuse, New York, to test how the food environment relates to the body mass index (BMI) of the adults at home.
The women in the study who kept fresh fruit out in the open tended to be a normal weight compared with their peers. But when snacks like cereals and sodas were readily accessible, those people were heavier than their neighbors—by an average of more than 20 pounds.
“It’s your basic See-Food Diet—you eat what you see,” says Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and lead author of the paper in the journal Health Education and Behavior.
WOULD YOU TAKE FOOD ADVICE FROM A FAT BLOGGER?
People who look for health information online judge food advice according to the blogger’s body weight, a new study finds.
When a blogger is overweight, as shown in the blogger’s photo, readers are far more skeptical of the information that blogger provides when compared with a thin blogger’s recommendations, even when the content is exactly the same.
“When we search for health information online, there are a lot of related cues that can bias our perceptions in ways that we may not be consciously aware of,” says Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication and lead author of the study.
“Awareness of these biases could help us better navigate health information online,” he says. It could also help us “avoid being swayed by nutritional information simply because it is posted by someone who is thin rather than heavy.”
But the study also suggests that “weight bias and prejudice—which are so rampant in our society—can spill over and affect not only the inferences we make about people, but also objects that are associated with them,” Schuldt says.
In one experiment, 230 subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups. They were all shown photos of the same 10 meals—including black bean and cheese quesadillas, chopped salad with croutons, sliced beef with vegetables, and so on. With each photo was also a thumbnail photo depicting the supposed author of the blog post. Participants were then asked to judge how healthy the meal was overall on a scale of one to seven. The only thing that differed between the two groups was the thumbnail photo of the blogger, which was a real picture of the same person before and after weight loss.
The researchers found that when the photo of the overweight woman accompanied the meal, “our participants perceived those meals to be less healthy” than the same meal presented with a photo of a thin blogger.
“People appear to assume that if a heavier person is recommending food, it is probably richer and less healthy,” Schuldt says.
In a second experiment, the researchers also included calorie and fat content information next to the image of the food and above the thumbnail of the blogger. “What we found is that even when we provided nutrient information that is much more relevant to the food’s health quality, people are still strongly influenced by the body weight of the recommender,” Schuldt says.
The researchers even went so far as to vary the fat and calorie content, so that some subjects saw a healthy nutritional label and others saw a label with approximately double the calorie content and triple the fat. They found that this increase in fat and calories influenced impressions to a similar extent as the heavy vs. thin blogger, all else being equal.
“When we dramatically increased the fat and calorie content, it had just as much impact as when we said the food was posted by a heavy person,” Schuldt says.
COULD A BRIBE ENTICE US TO EAT LESS?
Given the choice between a full-sized meal and one half the size with a modest “prize,” people will consistently choose the smaller meal. What’s better, it doesn’t take a free car to motivate healthier eating. Just the chance of winning a $10 lottery is enough
In our super-sized world, it’s not easy to eat less at meals. But a new study suggests even modest incentives to eat smaller portions can pay off in a big way.
Call it the “Happy Meal effect.” Given the choice between a full-sized meal and one half the size with a modest “prize,” people will consistently choose the smaller meal. What’s better, it doesn’t take a free car to motivate healthier eating. Just the chance of winning a $10 lottery is enough.
Researchers say the findings could be a way to fight obesity rates and health care costs.
“Portion sizes at US restaurants are often two or three times what they were 20 years ago, which is also distorting how much we eat at home,” says Deborah MacInnis, professor of business administration and professor of marketing at University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. “The increase in portion size directly parallels the increase we observe in obesity.”
EARBUDS AND GIFT CARDS
Giving consumers an incentive for choosing smaller meal portions means lower daily caloric intake and also helps consumers realize that smaller portions won’t leave them hungry, she says.
In the first of three experiments, sixth-graders were offered the choice between a 9-inch sandwich and a 4.5-inch sandwich and inexpensive earbuds. The majority of children chose the smaller sandwich.
In a second experiment with adults, half-sized portions were paired with the chance to win a $100 Amazon gift card or the chance to win 10,000 frequent-flyer miles accepted by all major airline loyalty programs. The majority chose the incentive and made that choice consistently over three days.
A third experiment had similar results in a real restaurant setting with customers who came in with the intention of buying a full-sized sandwich, but opted for the half-size and a chance to win a $10 lottery.
“Our research shows that small and even uncertain incentives motivate less food intake,” MacInnis says.
The findings showed that the Happy Meal Effect is robust across different non-food incentives, foods, populations, and time. Even hungry individuals were motivated to switch from the bigger to the smaller portion size when the smaller portion was paired with an appealing gamble to win money. And people consistently chose the smaller meal-plus-incentive even when it was priced the same as the full-sized meal.
But did those hungry people who chose the half-sized portion compensate later in the day? The researchers measured total calorie intake for participants in the second experiment and found that not only did they not compensate, but they actually consumed fewer total calories compared to their baseline day.
“This finding is interesting as it supports earlier research that found that reductions in portion size are additive and lead to prolonged decreases in food intake,” the researchers write in the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.
While some restaurants and food producers have recently eliminated smaller portion sizes due to decreased demand, the Happy Meal effect shows how it may be economically feasible for firms to maintain smaller-sized portions that are also desirable alternatives to larger-sized options.
“Although such rewards are common in the marketplace, they have not yet been bundled with smaller food offerings,” the study says.
Food providers can remain profitable because the payouts are nominal and costs can be distributed over dozens of customers, MacInnis says. “That’s good for healthy consumers and healthy businesses.”
The study also finds that normal-weight women were more likely to have a designated cupboard for snack items and less likely to buy food in large-sized packages than those who are obese.
The findings provide new insights into the role environmental factors play with obesity and offer remedies to rid the home of unhealthy cues while promoting the healthy ones. Rather than just the usual dietary advice prescribing less food and more exercise, the study suggests that consciously replacing unhealthy cues with healthy ones in the home could have a real impact on a person’s BMI, especially for women.
“We’ve got a saying in our lab, ‘If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do say’s Wansink.