Our Friends Make us Fat. Maybe.

Do our friends make us fat?  Technology can definitely influence how much we eat, and therefore our weight.  So does the time it takes for us to make healthy food.  There is lots of evidence to suggest that yes, our friends, can lead to increases in food consumption and our weight.

Imagine you go out to grab a meal at your favorite restaurant.  To make this easy, let’s assume you eat 100 calories worth of food if you are by yourself (in all actually, meals are more along the lines of 1200 calories, but I hate math, so let’s stick with 100 calories).  Studies of how people eat in the real world (compared to those done in labs) show that if you go to the restaurant with one other person, you’ll increase your calorie consumption by 33%.   In other words, you will eat 133 calories.  Bring two friends, you consume 147 calories.  Research has shown that by the time you include 7 friends, you will almost double the number of calories you eat. Here is how our 100 calorie dinner has grown:

So what does the mean in ‘real’ numbers?  In 2010 the US Dept of Commerce collected how many calories the average customer at Starbucks ordered:  232.  If we apply the above figure to the average customer ordering food at Starbucks, but this time bringing friends, below is a chart showing the caloric increases.

Our friends, though, are the least of our worries.  Eating with your spouse or a family member almost doubles the calories consumed than if you ate with just your friend.  And of course, there are gender differences.  If you are male, it doesn’t matter if your friend is male or female, you’ll increase your calories about the same.  If you are female, however, you eat more with a male friend then if you are eating with a female friend (personally, I thought it would be the other way around).

So what is happening here?  Why do I eat more with my friends than if I eat alone?  Personal experience gives me one clue:  When I go out to eat with friends, we often start with drinks (which many people forget, do have calories) and a shared appetizer, or two.  (Hell, let’s be honest, we often order three).   Then we each order a meal, and most likely another drink.  Who knows, we might even share our meals.  Whereas alone I or my friend might just order a nice, low-cal Caesar Salad, when there are two, I am more inclined to suggest you order the Caesar Salad, and I’ll order the Chicken Cordon Bleu, and we can split them!  And of course, we might just split dessert. We also know that when we eat with others, we linger.  Eating is a social event, so we take our time.  On average eating with one other person increase the time spent eating by 44%, which means we sit and nibble longer too.

So why the maybe in the title?  Because for large eaters, the effect is the opposite.  If I am someone that usually eats significantly more than the average person, then when I eat with the average person, I drop my calorie consumptionIn other words, eating with others is a normative phenomenon.  Light eaters increase their calories per meal when eating with others, while heavy eaters decrease their calories when eating with others, approaching a middle ground.

So maybe eating with others makes you heavier, but maybe not.  The jury is out on this one.


Endless Days (or Bowls) of Soup

While I was flying home to a family reunion last summer, I sat next to a Marine Drill Sergeant on the plane.  When he found out that I was professor, and that I taught a class on obesity, he laughed. “There is no reason for a whole class on why we are fat,” he chuckled.  “I tell all my new recruits loosing weight is easy.  CICAS:  Calories In, Calories Out, Stupid.  You can eat all you want, as long as you make sure you burn all you eat.”  Admittedly, his statement is true. But it kept me thinking, then why are people still heavy, and only getting heavier?  If it really did boil down to burning all the calories we ate, then there is convincing evidence that Americans should be fit, if not loosing weight.  Considering that the health and gym memberships are a $25 billion industry, and during economic downturns gym memberships experience growth (albeit small), it appears that Americans are working hard at the ‘calories out’ aspect.  So what is happening with the “calories in’ part?

If we look closely at calorie consumption in the United States, we find that most people eat more calories on a given day then they really need.  In 2000 the US Department of Agriculture found that the average daily caloric intake was 2,900.  That is almost 700 calories more than what is recommended for males 18 – 30 years of age.   And looking back at old editions of the Joy of Cooking, recipes have increased their calorie content by 37%, mostly because the portion sizes have increased.  And it does not take that many extra calories each day for you to gain weight.  A study by the University of California Wellness Center found consuming an extra 19 calories per day more than you burn results in gaining 2 pounds over a single year.

But what has only 19 calories?  It is hard for us to picture something that is only 19 calories – and that is because we really are not good at judging calories.  To be fair, it is hard.  Equal amounts of two foods do not mean have equal calories.  Take, for example, cucumbers and M&Ms. A medium sized cucumber has 19 calories, while a single, Fun Size bag of M&Ms has 103 calories.  You would have to eat five medium sized cucumbers to get about the same number of calories as the bag of M&Ms. Put another way, you only get to eat about 3-5 M&Ms to get 19 calories.  So if you eat an extra 3-5 M&Ms each day, for a year, you would gain 2 pounds.

In order to consume fewer calories we need to do something very simple, but admittedly very hard:  Stop eating.  Or maybe, stop eating when we are full.  Americans, however, ignore when our bodies tell us it is time to stop eating.  Psychologist Brian Wansink asked Americans diners (from Chicago) and French diners (from Paris) how they know when to stop eating a meal.  The French said they stopped eating when the food no longer tasted good, or they were no longer hungry.   The Americans, however, said they knew it was time to stop eating when there was no more food left on the plate, or (worse yet) when the television show they were watching while eating was over.  In other words, American’s rely upon external cues to help us determine when we have had enough calories.

Probably the best example of this is another study done by Wansink and colleagues, called the Bottomless Bowl of Soup.  In this study, 54 males at a university were invited to participate in a ‘soup-only’ lunch, and then answer some questions about the soup. Each diner sat at a table with three other people, and was told to enjoy as much soup from his bowl as he wanted.  The participants talked and ate, as one would during a normal lunch.

What the participants did not know was half of the subjects had a ‘self-refilling’ bowl.  That is, the bowls were connected to a pot of soup by a large tube that ran under the table, and was hidden from view.   This allowed Wansink and his colleagues to slowly refill the soup bowls, so that the diner would never reach the bottom of the bowl.  Wansink gave each table 20 minutes before interrupting the meal and asked a series of questions.  One was how each participant knew to stop eating the soup, and more than half of the participants stated, “When the bowl was empty.”  Since half of the bowls were refilling, they would never get empty – and indeed only one person stopped eating and realized the trick.   This was because he attempted to pick the bowl up from the table to drink his soup (It turns out, compared to the French, Americans also have poor dining manners)!

Those participants with a bottomless bowl of soup ate more than those at the table with normal bowls.  And not just a little more – but almost twice as much (14.7 ounces of soup for the bottomless bowl group, compared to 8.5 ounces for the normal).  Wansink also asked each diner how many calories he thought he had consumed.  Here the two groups were similar, each thinking they had consumed about 125 calories of soup. In reality, the group with the normal bowls consumed about 155 calories, while those with the bottomless bowls consumed nearly 270 calories!

But who really eats from a bottomless bowl of soup?  Or drinks from the bottomless bottle of soda?  The answer, of course, is no one.  Not normally. But the average American does eat more calories each day than really needed.  We do not pay attention when our bodies tell us to stop eating – but instead we pay attention to much food we have available.  And this is bad.  As technology and science increase our ability to grow and produce more food, Americans will most likely continue to eat more.  In fact, we know this is true already.  A pair of Australian economists downloaded from the US Department of Agriculture the amount of raw grains American farmers had grown for a 10-year period.  As expected, they found that America increased food production over time, most likely due to better technology for growing and harvesting grains.  The Australians then compared this increase in food production with the average increase in weight for the same 10-year period.  And surprisingly (or not, considering what we have just discussed in the previous paragraphs) the increase in food production matched perfectly the increase in weight.  Meaning, gives us more food, and we’ll eat more food.  We just cannot seem to stop those calories from coming in!

Here – we are all BIG family

Can't Stop Till We Get Enough

Last summer, three friends and I decided to do the Big Foot triathlon, located in beautiful Geneva Lake, Wisconsin.  After checking into our hotel, we decided we would ‘carbo-load,’ a triathlon (and marathon) race tradition, of eating pasta and other carbohydrate laden meals the night before, to give us energy for the next morning’s race.  Not knowing the area well, we stopped at an Olive Garden restaurant, located just down the road from our hotel.

As we waited for seats, one of my friends – who is allergic to wheat and gluten products – asked if there was a gluten free menu she could look at.  What we received was the food and nutrition fact sheet that US restaurants are required to provide.  I still have that fact sheet, in my office amongst books entitled Fat Land, and The Obesity Myth.  I kept it, because as we read the list looking for something my friend could eat, we were dumbfounded.  The restaurant’s two featured entrees, the stuffed rigatoni (either with chicken or sausage) contained over 1000 calories for a single serving (1050 for the chicken, and a whopping 1350 for the sausage).  This was for one item of food, and if you considered that most Olive Garden customers usually consume the free bread sticks (which was not on the fact sheet), a soft-drink (100 calories, assuming non-diet), and possibly a dessert (none of which were less than 300 calories), ordering a featured meal at the Olive Garden tipped the scale at over 1400 calories!  For perspective, health officials in the US government recommend that adult males 18 – 30 years of age consume about 2200 calories a day.  After a meal at the Olive Garden, you have less than 800 calories left for the entire day – or about one Venti Mocha and Taragon Chicken sandwich at Starbucks.

As I sat in the restaurant, consciously picking through my Ceasar Salad with Chicken (850 calories, not including the dressing), I kept reading through the information guide.  Quite frankly, one reason for the extreme calorie content of the Olive Garden’s meals is due to their portion size.  And this results in huge calories:  The average Classic Entree at Olive Garden has 1045 calories per serving.  If you thought ordering a chicken entree would be better – I mean, chicken is the lean meat! – think again.  The average is 1031 calories.  To be really healthy at the Olive Garden, order a seafood entrée: An average of 780 calories per serving (the best, calorie wise, is the Seafood Brodetto – 480 calories).

I must be fair – I am leaving out the entrees that Olive Garden labels as their healthy & low-fat fares (noted with an olive leaf), which range from 430 calories per serving (the Linguine alla marinara) to 840 calories (the Capallini Pomodoro).  But how many people come to the Olive Garden thinking, “tonight baby, I’m thinking light and low-fat.”  You go to the Olive Garden for pasta – hefty, filling, saucy, pasta.

I also noticed that it was not just the servings at the Olive Garden that were big – so were the customers.  In fact, Greg Critser, the noted science and medicine author of Fat Land, tells a story from the 1980s when an Olive Garden customer phoned Ron MaGrauder – the restaurant chain’s then president – to complain that he was too large to sit in the booth and seats at his local Olive Garden.  MaGruder responded as any responsible company president would – he order new over-sized seats so that each of the 256 Olive Garden restaurants in the United States could have three.  Customers get what they want.

And apparently, we want our food big, and our bodies big too.