Wed, Apr 26th, 2017

‘I’ll have what he’s having’: How our friends make us FAT because we feel pressured to order what they do

  • When groups of people eat out, they tend to select items from the same menu categories – effectively a ‘peer pressure’ of ordering
  • And we only really enjoy our meal when we order similar dish to fellow diners
  • But dining with healthy eaters does make us eat more healthily

We’ve all got those friends who derail our best intentions by ordering a mouth-watering, calorie-laden meal.

Now researchers have confirmed they could be derailing our diets even more than once thought.

A University of Illinois study found that when groups of people eat out, they tend to select items from the same menu categories – effectively a ‘peer pressure’ of ordering.

And that we only really enjoy our meal when we order a similar dish to our fellow diners.

Food economist Brenna Ellison analysed the lunch receipts from a restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma, over a three-month period.

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 how calorific a meal was.

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.

Because she visited the restaurant every day to pick up receipts, Dr Ellison was able to get additional information directly from the servers.

She said: ‘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,’ she said.

But the big finding was that we really are happier if we make similar choices to our fellow diners.  

Dr Ellison explained: ‘If my peers are ordering higher-calorie items or spending more money, then I am also happier if I order higher-calorie foods and spend more money.

She added that even salad became more acceptable if other members of a party ordered it. 

‘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.

‘It seems that people want to be different, but not that different.

‘Given this finding, we thought it would almost be better to nudge people toward healthier friends than healthier foods.’

And the secret to getting what you want? Order first. ‘Research suggests that you should always order first because the first person is the only one who truly gets what they want,’ explained Dr Ellison.

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