According to an old joke, “I’m on a see-food diet. I see food, I eat it.” While that tendency to grab what’s in front of you is obviously problematic, newly published research finds one environment where it can come in very handy: The buffet line.
“What ends up on a buffet diner’s plate is dramatically determined by the presentation order of food,” Cornell University researchers Brian Wansink and Andrew Hanks report in the journal PLOS One. “Rearranging food order from healthiest to least healthy can nudge unknowing, or even resistant, diners towards a healthier meal.”
Wansink and Hanks describe a study featuring 124 human resource managers attending a conference on behavior change and health. Unwittingly, they found themselves part of an experiment one morning.
The conference-goers began their day by being randomly assigned to one of two breakfast buffet lines. The food served at the two locations was identical, but the order of the dishes was reversed.
“On one line, cheesy eggs were served first, followed by fried potatoes, bacon, cinnamon rolls, low-fat granola, low-fat yogurt, and fruit,” the researchers report. On the other line, the fruit came first, followed by the yogurt, and ending with the high-fat egg dish.
Research assistants took note of which items each diner put on their tray. They discovered the order the foods were presented mattered—a lot.
“Over 75 percent of diners selected the first food they saw,” Wansink and Hanks write, “and the first three foods a person encountered in the buffet consisted of 66 percent of all the foods they took.”
Specifically, 75.4 percent of diners who encountered the cheesy eggs immediately helped themselves to the unhealthy entrée—compared to 28.8 percent of those in the alternate line, where it was placed last.
Furthermore, the researchers found starting off with that fattening dish “seemed to trigger the selection of the next two calorically dense and highly palatable foods”—the fried potatoes and bacon.
“Culturally, eggs, bacon and potatoes are common breakfast foods that are served together,” they note. “When cheesy eggs are served first, the diner may be obeying the cultural script that bacon or potatoes should follow.”
However, “when fruit is served first, diners do not enter into any specific behavioral script (and are less likely to choose eggs, bacon and potatoes),” they add. “Thus fruit may act as a healthy trigger.”
The researchers caution that they did not measure portion size or actual consumption. It’s possible that the people who chose the unhealthy foods had second thoughts once they sat down, and decided to eat only a small portion of what they took.
Possible, but unlikely.
The takeaway from the experiment is clear: Encouraging healthy eating may be as simple as offering nutrient-rich, low-calorie items as a first choice. As Wansink and Hanks note, this simple strategy could be easily employed by school cafeterias, buffet-style restaurants, catering companies, “or even households to help both adults and children eat better.”
Better yet, it sidesteps issues of the “nanny state” telling us what to eat. Under this plan, fattening foods are freely available: They’re simply at the end of the line, at which point their greasy goodness has lost much of its appeal.