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Buffet behavior – All you can eat or all you should eat?

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Picture yourself at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Are you facing the buffet, or are you sitting with your back to it? Are you in a booth or at a table? Do you cruise the whole buffet line before deciding what to eat, or do you just plunge right in? To the well-trained eye, the way you behave in a buffet line could say a lot about you – and could very well affect how much you eat.

A couple of years ago, a paper published in the journal Obesity1 revealed some interesting findings from a cleverly-designed study. A total of 22 ‘trained observers’ were scattered among 11 all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets throughout the country, where they slyly watched over more than 200 diners.

They’d been trained to accurately estimate the weight and height of random patrons, then use this information to estimate their body mass index (or BMI) which is a simple way to express a person’s weight in relationship to their height. After they’d done that, they sat back, watched, and recorded what they saw – and the findings were remarkable.

There were clearly observable differences in behavior between normal weight and heavy-set people. Those with BMIs in the normal range were more likely to sit in a booth, while the high BMI folks were much more likely to sit at a table. The heavier people were also more likely to seat themselves so they could view the spread, rather than sitting with their backs to it.

The observers also noticed that the normal-weight diners tended to ‘scope out’ the whole buffet before deciding what to eat – and they put their final choices on moderately-sized plates. Most overweight diners just started at the beginning of the line and piled on the foods – and they used larger plates to do it. Even the choice of utensils differed – a lot more normal-weight people chose to eat with chopsticks, while the heavy ones opted for a fork.

Now, anyone who’s trying to lose weight knows that there are lots of tips for modifying eating behavior – eat slowly, keep tempting foods out of plain sight, practice portion control and pre-plan your meals. So what made this study so interesting is that it was a real-world observation of these principles at work.

When foods are easy to get and eat, we tend to eat a lot more of them. We’re pretty adept at using forks to shovel our food in, so it’s not surprising that heavier people might favor this method, since it’s the easiest and fastest way to get the job done. It’s also a lot easier and faster to get out of a chair rather than a booth in order to make a return trip to a buffet.

Taking a quick tour around the buffet first – something the normal-weight diners tended to do – says you’re planning ahead for what you’re going to eat. Heavier diners seemed to have only one plan – to eat, and eat a lot. And they threw another portion-control trick out the window when they opted for larger plates. Keep tempting foods out of plain sight? Hard to do when you sit facing the buffet line.

If it’s value you’re after, consider the nutritional value of your meal rather than how much food you’re getting for your dollar. Just because the sign says “all you can eat”, doesn’t mean you should.

Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD.

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