Resisting the temptation to take the lure of an all-you-can-eat buffet as a personal challenge is enough to test the willpower of even the most nutrition-conscious person. Now scientists have found that the order you put food on your plate can influence the likelihood of what other foods you’ll follow up with.
Buffets are a common part of the daily dining experience for many people including travellers staying in hotels, at evening social functions, conferences and work cafeterias. With so much food choice available at a buffet, are there some useful strategies that the health conscious person can use to help avoid unconscious overeating from the array of tempting food on offer?
To answer this question, nutrition researchers set up two seven-item breakfast buffet tables in the dining room at a conference venue. The two buffet tables were placed close to each other and both tables had the identical food items on them. Unknown to the conference attendees though was that food items on the tables were arranged in opposite order.
On one table the order of the food items started off with cheesy eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yoghurt, and fruit. The other table used the reverse order.
As each of the 124 conference attendees entered the dining area, they were randomly assigned to take their breakfast from one of the two tables. Researchers kept a discrete but careful eye on the food items each person took
The first item seen on each table was the most likely to be selected. When fruit was the first item presented, 86% of diners took it while only 29% took the cheesy eggs which was the last item on that table. On the reverse table, 75% of diners started off with the cheesy eggs yet just 55% choose fruit when it was offered last.
Looking at all the items on a person’s plate, two-thirds was filled by one or more of the first three items they encountered on the table. When the less healthy items were presented first, diners took 31% more total food items.
Selecting cheesy eggs as the first item strongly predicted that potatoes and bacon would also be chosen. Yet, when fruit was offered first there was no evidence that taking fruit was correlated with the selection of any other item.
Because the experiment was done in real-world conditions without the participants knowing they were being observed, it was not possible to obtain an estimate of how much of each food item each person took or if they ate it all. The research was published in PLOS ONE.
What it all means
The clear piece of advice to emerge from this study is to load up your plate with healthy foods first. Not only does that leave less room for less healthy options, but it can subtly influence what other foods you choose after. When faced with the temptation of an all-you-can-eat buffet, don’t be afraid to move to the healthy items first rather than follow the conga line of diners.