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.

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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!

Pie Today. And Every Day.

Americans are getting bigger, and one of the first places to look when hunting for the reason is how we eat.  As biological creatures, we need to eat.  But across all cultures, all languages, eating is more than just a basic need we fulfill everyday – like breathing.  Meals are celebrations and events.  When I come home each year to visit my parents, my mother fixes salmon because she knows it is one of my favorite foods.  It is just one of her ways of showing affection, and gratitude that I made the long trip.

We do more than just eat to stay alive.

And how Americans eat has changed drastically over the past fifty years.  When my mother got married, my grandmother bought her two books: The Betty Crooker Cookbook, and a current edition of the classic cookbook, The Joy of Cooking.  The Joy of Cooking was first published in the 1931, and perusing the recipes is a history lesson in how American households shopped and ate.  The very first chapter is dedicated to the food we eat: Calories, fats, and carbohydrates.  Then we get to entertaining and planning meals, from the types of glasses you should use for serving orange juice each morning to the cocktail glass you should have chilled and filled at 5 PM each day when your husband comes home. There are pictures of cows and pigs showing the names and location of the cuts of meat, so you knew the difference between a shank and a brisket.  There are entire chapters dedicated to the ‘basics’ of cooking, such as the art of double-frying, making a roux, and the difference between blanching and paraboiling.  But more importantly, the recipes read as if you are going to go out back and slaughter the cow yourself if you want steak tonight.   Cooking at home required not only understanding how to create a balanced menu of meals, but was a time consuming process.

French Fried Goodness

After World War II, Americans enjoyed what is called the Golden Age of Food Processing.  Advances in technology took much of the work out of making food.  In the Joy of Cooking, making Never Fail French Fries is no easy task.  First you need to slowly heat a stockpot of oil to 330 degrees.  After slicing your large potatoes, you first blanch them in 90-degree water for 15 minutes and dry them on cloth.  Once the oil is hot enough, you fry them a small handful of slices at a time.  After about 3 minutes fish them out and let them cool  – while you crank the oil up to 375-degree.  Fry a second time, then take the out and season.  Serve immediately (or after letting them cool for just a minute or two).  From start-to-finish takes 40 minutes, including preparation and cooking time.  Today you can buy a bag of pre-cut, pre-seasoned French Fries at the grocery store.  From freezer to table is 14 minutes – If you bake them in the oven.  Microwaving them is even faster.

So we get food faster?  Why does that make us fat?  It is not the speed that contributes to our growing girth:  It is the convenience.  For my mother, getting French Fries for dinner was a special treat – and a fatty one.  Potatoes have long been a staple of the American diet (in the 1960s American ate about 20 pounds of potatoes a year).  But the easiest cooking method (and the healthiest) was baked.  You threw it in the oven for an hour, and then finished cutting, dicing, and mixing the rest of the meal.  And a large (12 oz), plain baked potato is fairly healthy:  220 calories, almost no cholesterol or fat, and 10% of your daily protein needs.  A serving of Ore Ida Classic French Fries (about 1 oz after cooking) contains 110 calories, and 1.5 grams of saturated fat.  So if you ate 12 servings (the equivalent of that one large potato) you would have 1,320 calories.  And with French fries available everywhere now, they have become the standard American side dish (60 pounds of potatoes per person, in 2009).

Americans do not cook like we use too, and this French Fry Effect, so to speak, is everywhere.  When I was in graduate school, I lost a bet to a friend of mine, and my payment was making her a homemade strawberry-rhubarb pie.  I pulled out my Joy of Cooking, and started reading it, and realized I was going to need flour, water, eggs, butter, sugar, strawberries, and rhubarb to get the job done.  Simple enough – but as a single-male, the only items I actually had in my kitchen were the water, butter, and the eggs.  Had I not promised to make the pie from scratch, I would have bought a pre-made pie crust, and a can of pie filling (assuming Libby’s made strawberry-rhubarb filling).  Instead I bought all the ingredients, and spent about 90 minutes from start to finish, fulfilling my obligation.  Don’t get me wrong – the pie was delicious (if I do not say so myself).  But not something I wanted to do every night, in addition to making myself dinner.  That strawberry-rhubarb pie was a treat.  Pies took time, and were served on special occasions.  But today, you can buy one frozen at the grocery store, pop it into the even (next to the tray of French Fries, no doubt) and have it every night.