Long the bane of Canadian waistlines, the buffet is being re-examined through a kinder, gentler and certainly more slimming lens, thanks to a leading eating-behaviour expert.
Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, alongside post-doctoral research associate Andrew Hanks, has just released a study in which buffet lines are shown to actually improve diners' rate of making healthy choices -- even when there are fatty foods on offer.
The secret is in the arrangement, with the first three dishes setting the tone for the entire meal.
Something to consider as we waddle through holiday party season.
"It's a really stark example of environments, and how they can affect the food we take," said Hanks, who works in the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. "The concept of 'first food most' is really salient here. Whatever you see first, boom! That's what you're going to take."
Wansink and Hanks randomly assigned 124 breakfast diners to one of two buffet lines, each containing an identical selection of dishes. The only difference was the food order, with one line placing the healthier items at the start (low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, low-fat granola) and the other placing the less healthy items there (bacon, cheesy eggs, fried potatoes, cinnamon rolls).
Health value was assessed by a dietitian, based on the caloric and nutrient density of the dishes.
"Previous studies have just looked at how characteristics of individuals correlate with the picking of different foods and how much is eaten," said Hanks. "This actually rearranges the physical environment."
More than three-quarters of diners chose the first dish they saw, while the first three dishes accounted for two-thirds of all food taken. In addition, choosing the less healthful dishes saw diners serve themselves 31 per cent more food than those who opted for healthier choices.
In the cheesy eggs-first line, 78.5 per cent of diners chose the less healthy items, and 66.2 per cent served themselves the healthier items. By contrast, 96.6 per cent of diners in the fruit-first line served themselves healthier items, and only 39 per cent took the less healthy items.
Wansink and Hanks conclude that "rearranging food order from healthiest to least healthy can nudge unknowing or even resistant diners toward a healthier meal, helping make them slim by design."
Though the PLOS One study was small, it lays a compelling foundation for future experiments with food order.
Hanks proposes, for example, that this kind of mindful food arrangement could prove useful in school cafeterias, where educators want to avoid paternalism but nonetheless encourage better eating.
"It's preserving choice, but guiding behaviour toward the better option," said Hanks.
Canadian health researcher Jennifer Irwin described the study -- with which she is unaffiliated -- as a demonstration of how people continue to eat as much with their eyes as with their bellies.
Indeed, the Canadian Health Measures Survey reports that nearly one-third (31.5 per cent) of the nation's five- to 17-year-olds were either overweight or obese between 2009 and 2011. Among Canadians aged 18 to 79, almost two out of every three (60 per cent) individuals were overweight or obese.
"Unless people pre-decide what types of foods they're looking for on a buffet before they step up to it, it can be quite a challenge to make food choices they know are best and avoid the ones that are seemingly screaming their names," said Irwin, an associate professor of health science at Western University in Ontario.
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