Buffet layouts could influence what we eat

Behind the Headlines

Friday November 8 2013

Over three out of four people took the first food that they saw

The first foods you see at a buffet may end up on your plate

The Mail Online website reports that: “The secret to retaining self-control at a buffet? Eat the fruit first: People who start with healthier foods are less tempted by junk later on.”

It reports on a study that wanted to test an assumption about human psychology – when it comes to a buffet do people tend to eat most of the food they see first? And if so, could altering the layout of a buffet influence healthier eating behaviours?

This research involved 124 diners at a conference. Two identical breakfast buffet tables were set up on opposite sides of the room – one where fruit, yoghurt and granola were lined up first, one where the bacon and eggs and fried potatoes came first. The diners were randomly sent to one of the lines as they entered.

Researchers found that the order food was presented did influence what was taken, with the first foods a person encountered being more likely to be chosen. So it was possible to promote a healthier eating choice by the design of the buffet.

Overall, this is interesting, if fairly unsurprising research. But the results may be of interest to those responsible for providing buffet lunches and who also have an interest in improving public health, such as school, college, university or work cafeterias.

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York and was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal PLoS One.

PLoS One is an open access journal so the study is free to read online or download.

The Mail Online’s reporting of the study is accurate.

 

What kind of research was this?

The researchers say how every day tens of millions of restaurant goers, conference attendees, college students, military personnel, and school children serve themselves at buffets, which are often “all-you-can-eat”. They say that knowing how the order that food is presented at a buffet influences what a person selects could be useful in guiding diners to make healthier selections. Each food that is taken is either chosen as a substitute for another food or taken in addition to other foods, and so what a person selects first may trigger subsequent selections of foods that will complement this. 

To this end, the researchers presented two breakfast buffet lines, one where healthy options were presented first, and the second where the less healthy options came first. They aimed to answer the questions:

  • Are diners more likely to take the first foods they see?
  • Does taking the first item trigger subsequent choices?
  • Are there differences in the total number of foods chosen between the two lines?

 

What did the research involve?

Participants were human resource managers attending a conference on behaviour change and health. Two separate breakfast serving lines were set up across the room from each other. There was no difference in the type or amount of food in both lines, but the food order was reversed between the two lines.

On the “unhealthy line” cheesy eggs were served first, followed by fried potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yoghurt, and fruit. Food on the other “healthy” line was presented in the opposite order: fruit, low-fat yoghurt, low-fat granola, cinnamon rolls, bacon, fried potatoes, and cheesy eggs.

When 124 diners entered the main door they were randomly assigned to one of the two buffet tables (people who presented in small groups were assigned together). They were told that because of scheduling they could only make one trip to the buffet. A researcher in a hidden location near the food lines recorded what each individual took, though the quantity of each item was not assessed.

Statistical analyses were used to see whether serving order had any influence on behaviour.

 

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that overall food order influenced what people selected. 

The first foods people encountered were more likely to be chosen than the last foods they encountered. There was a higher chance that people took the first option offered, regardless of whether it was healthy (fresh cut fruit) or less healthy (cheesy eggs) – 86% took fruit when it was the first thing offered, compared to 54% taking fruit when it was the last thing offered. Similarly, 75% took cheesy eggs when they were offered first, while only 29% took them when offered last. Overall 66% of a person’s plate was made up by the first three items they encountered.

The previous item selected also influenced what next item was selected, particularly in the “unhealthy line” (for example, choosing eggs was likely to be followed by choosing bacon). The researchers also found that when less healthy foods were offered first that people took more different food types.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say that three words summarise their results – “First foods most”. The presentation order of food determines what ends up on the plate and rearranging food order from healthiest to least healthy can nudge diners toward a healthier meal which they suggest could “help make them slim by design”.

 

Conclusion

The main thing this study shows is not surprising – people take what is offered to them. If a hungry person is presented with fruit they will likely take it while they have the chance – perhaps not seeing what will be offered later in the line – similarly if they are presented with fried breakfast options they will likely take them. Especially if you are told you are not going to get the chance to come back and take them again, as the people in this study were. It seems fairly obvious that you will then select other items that will go with what you have already taken.

An interesting extension to the research would be to ensure that people were not able to see what item was next to be presented so that they definitely didn’t know that healthy, or less healthy options, would be coming further down the line.

The idea that serving healthy foods at a buffet first could "help make us slim by design" would be all well and good if all of our meals were presented to us each day at a buffet. As the majority of us attend buffets rather infrequently, they are unlikely to have much influence on population overweight and obesity. Though using this method in environments where buffet lunches are a regular fixture, such as schools or colleges, could have some impact on health.

The researchers suggest that this idea of presenting healthy options first could extend into different contexts – such as when serving or passing food at family dinners.

Though ultimately, the best way not to eat unhealthy snacks such as crisps, biscuits and chocolate is just not to buy them so that they are not available in the house. 

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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