Healthy eating made easier with healthy companions

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 8:27 p.m. CDT

If you want to eat healthier when dining out, researchers recommend surrounding yourself with friends who make healthy food choices.

A University of Illinois study showed that when groups of people eat together at a restaurant at which they must state their food choice aloud, they tend to select items from the same menu categories.

“My conclusion from the research is that people want to be different, but not that different,” said U of I food economist Brenna Ellison. “We want to fit in with the people we’re dining with.  It goes against the expectation that people will exhibit variety-seeking behavior; we don’t want to be that different from others.”

Ellison analyzed the lunch receipts from a full-service restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma, for a period of three months.  One section of the restaurant was the control group, with guests receiving menus with the item and price only. Another section received menus with calorie counts for each entrée. And a third section had both the calorie count and a traffic light symbol that indicated caloric ranges: green traffic light items contained 400 calories or less, yellow light items had between 401 and 800 calories, and red light items contained more than 800 calories.

“(Servers) said that people talked about the traffic lights a lot,” Ellison said. “And we did find that larger tables which received the traffic light menus did order fewer calories, on average, which suggests there was some  peer pressure to order lower-calorie items.”

Researchers also found that people were happier if their food choices were similar in cost and calorie count to those of their companions.

“The most interesting thing we found was that no matter how someone felt about the category originally, even if it was initially a source of unhappiness, such as the items in the salad category, this unhappiness was offset when others had ordered within the same category,” Ellison said. “Given this finding, we thought it would almost be better to nudge people toward healthier friends than healthier foods.”

One piece of information that wasn’t included in the data is who ordered first at each table. Ellison said she wants to have this piece of information the next time she runs a similar experiment.

“Previous studies have shown that if you don’t have to order audibly, everyone just gets what they want without any peer pressure involved,” she said. “Research suggests that you should always order first because the first person is the only one who truly gets what they want.”

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