The crux of my graduate research on the social and cultural history of food (and food-related disorders) is on examining the multitude of factors beyond hunger itself that influence our food choices — for a list of just a few of those, see the site’s mission statement. I’ve read parts of Brian Wansink’s 2006 book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” and find many of his arguments to be astute or at the very least, thought-provoking. For example, Wansink commandeered the “McSubway Study” referenced in this New York Times article on Monday. The study found that the “health halo” marketing campaign crafted by Subway leads consumers to believe that even those Subway sandwiches with more calories and fat than a McDonald’s Big Mac sandwich to be the healthier choice. The study found that the average Subway diner thought he/she was eating 34 percent less calories than they really were, in large part, because McDonald’s makes no health claims of its sandwiches while Subway does.
Wansink’s research into the hidden psychology of food is fascinating, but some findings in his latest study border on the absurd. Fellow blogger Harriet Brown posted this week on an assumptive and prejudicial wire story published in her local paper, opining that it provides just one example of how discrimination of fat people is legitimized. Wansink’s newest study is just another example of the same.
Wansink, a food psychologist, is also the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. His research team sent trained voyeurs, err, “observers” to watch 213 randomly-selected patrons of 11 all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets across the United States. The observers recorded the approximate age, height and weight of each patron of each patron spied upon. As you might conclude, the study found that “heavier people are more likely to… engage in other behaviors that lead to overeating.” Below are some of the study’s findings.
They found that heavier patrons, whether overweight or obese, were more likely to:
- 1) Leave less food leftover on their plate
- 2) Chew fewer times per bite.
- 3) Begin serving themselves immediately instead of surveying the buffet.
- 4) Sit at a table vs. a booth.
- 5) Face the buffet while eating, rather than have their side or back to it.
- 6) Put their napkin on the table or tucked into their shirt vs. on their lap.
- 7) Use a fork instead of chopsticks.
- 8 ) Pick up a larger plate vs. a smaller one.
For the sake of argument, I’ll give Wansink points 1-3. And I won’t even go into how very creepy it is to spy on people and use them in a study without their consent or even knowledge of it. The rest of the study’s findings, however, are subject to bias, interpretation and even sheer coincidence — hardly subjective scientific rationale on which to base sweeping claims about any one group, especially a group as diverse and large (no pun intended) as overweight and obese people. Points 4-8 are further dissected below:
4) Sit at a table vs. a booth. AND 5) Face the buffet while eating, rather than have their side or back to it.
The study does note that booths are more difficult for heavy folk to sit in, but only after emphasizing first that booths tend to be further away from the buffet. That and the following statement that fat people prefer to sit facing the buffet instead suggests that fat people want as little obstacle as possible between them and the feast they will undoubtedly soon devour. I haven’t been to a Chinese buffet since at least 2002, but I doubt little has changed since then. In my experiences, patrons are usually seated by a host/ess, and even in those seat-yourself establishments where people sit is dictated more so by accessibility and seat availability than buffet proximity. It also makes sense that since fat folks do sit more often at tables — tables can better accommodate their size than booths — that they are more apt to sit facing the buffet. Think about it: If tables tend to be closer to the buffet, fat people don’t want to obstruct the paths of other patrons to and around the buffet, which could happen if their back is to the buffet.
6) Put their napkin on the table or tucked into their shirt vs. on their lap.
Wansink explains that putting a napkin in one’s lap interferes with fat people’s ability to sit close enough to a table to eat comfortably. This is a simple size accessibility issue having nothing to do with food really, but Wansink seems to suggest that it’s yet another example of how fat people are loathe to do anything that gets in the way between them and food. The fact that fatness represents a class issue and/or that people might just lack good manners isn’t even up for consideration here.
7) Use a fork instead of chopsticks.
This has to be the most insulting and outrageous claim made of the whole study. According to Wansink, chopsticks mean less food per bite and more effort to pick up food. In other words, it’s easier to shovel food down one’s throat with a fork than a chopstick hence why fat people are less likely to use them. Like I said, I haven’t been to a Chinese buffet in six years, but our family used to frequent them often (they still do; I don’t). Of all the times I’ve eaten at a Chinese buffet, I can probably recall only a handful of people who opted for chopsticks — these talented folks usually stood out to me because I never could grasp the chopsticks concept and I tried to mimic them. Chinese buffets usually aren’t the first spot for Chinese foodies, who are usually more apt to know how to dangle two sticks between their fingers without spilling lo-mein all over their shirt. And in my local area, Chinese buffets are frequented by more middle-class and poorer people less likely to be masters of Chinese tradition than by yuppies who can afford to be Chinese epicureans. Regardless, I don’t see many people, fat or thin, at P.F. Chang’s or Shangai Mama’s using chopsticks, either.
8 ) Pick up a larger plate vs. a smaller one.
The smaller plate theory underpins much of Wansink’s entire food psychology mantra. Past studies of his have convincingly shown that people eat more when they use larger plates. Considering that many people are raised to be members of the Clean Plate Club, this makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the application of the theory within the context of Chinese buffets — where often only one plate size is available to all patrons — to suggest that fat people eat more than their thin counterparts. I’ve been to buffets that do offer smaller garden plates for fruits and salads, but these plates are often made of glass, which doesn’t retain heat as well as porcelain dinner plates and can be hot to the touch when plated with hot food. Soup bowls and teensy-sized dessert plates are usually available, but I don’t recall ever seeing anyone ever use a dessert plate in lieu of a dinner plate at any restaurant, least of all a buffet.
To his credit, Wansink does admit that he and his colleagues don’t know whether these so-called habits that encourage overeating exist independently of weight. Nonetheless, the assumption that these behaviors (or a lack thereof) are what made these 213 people fat (or thin) is presented as a statement of fact. He plans to release the full study findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Obesity.
I think Harriet put it best:
…every one of these stories underlines, subtly or overtly, our cultural attitudes and assumptions about fat people, and so leads to more fat prejudice and stereotyping.
And there’s already plenty of that to go around.