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Are you someone who just can't say no when you are offered food? A new research study tells us that good manners can get in the way of weight control.

I have a confession to make right here on Steady Health, a website with nearly 300,000 members. I am extremely well informed about weight control. And I have a weight problem myself. There's a lot of me to love.

A few weeks ago I sat down next to a good friend, a thin friend at a community dinner. The meal was delicious. The dessert, everyone said, was fabulous. But they were running out. My friend wanted a serving of that wonderful peach pie for herself, and she brought one for me, too.

Thin People Will Share High-Calorie Food with Heavier People

My friend was being kind and polite. But her behavior illustrates a general principle about social interactions around food recently tested by investigators at the Department of Marketing at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Dr. Gavan Fitzsimons and his collaborators and students recruited volunteers whose task was to choose a snack for themselves and a member of the research team, a woman who sometimes wore a size 0 dress, her natural size, or sometimes wore a size 16 dress over a fat suit.

The test subjects were asked to choose a snack for themselves and for the researcher. They could choose chocolate chip cookies (the "unhealthy" food) or wheat crackers (the "healthy" food).

Most test subjects would prefer chocolate chip cookies for themselves, but they also had to choose a snack for the woman from the research team. When the researcher wore a fat suit and a size 16 dress, more often than not, test subjects would get chocolate chip cookies for themselves and get chocolate chip cookies for the researcher, too.

People picked unhealthy foods for themselves and for others, too, to avoid hurt feelings. Doctoral student Peggy Liu also noted that some participants in the study said it would be impolite to pick healthy food for themselves, even if they preferred the wheat crackers over the chocolate chip cookies, and offer unhealthy food for an overweight person. People in the study also tried to avoid the message "I can see you are fat so I am bringing you cookies to stuff your face." 

Overall, 60% of participants in the study brought the same snack for themselves and the research collaborator when she was wearing a fat suit. Only 30% of participants in the study brought the same snack for the research collaborator and themselves when she was not.

How Overeating Becomes "Contagious"

It is easy to see how this principle would apply to other social situations that center around eating food. If you are making a trip to the buffet table and your overweight friend or relative is  in the middle of a conversation, you might, for instance, offer to bring back a piece of pie for your dining partner. If your dining partner is overweight, you will naturally choose a larger portion for them, but because bringing back a smaller portion for yourself would imply you think your dining partne is fat, as a polite person you take a large portion for yourself, too.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Peggy J. Liu, Troy H. Campbell, Gavan J. Fitzsimons, Gráinne M. Fitzsimons. Matching choices to avoid offending stigmatized group members. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2013.
  • Fitzsimons, G, et al. Might an overweight waitress make you eat more? How the body type of others is sufficient to alter our food consumption. J Consum Psychol. 2010.20:146–151.
  • Photo courtesy of sean_hickin by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/sean_hickin/3998357738/
  • Photo courtesy of Jon Rawlinson by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/london/160146160/

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