New Season, New You

There's a downside to being nice to your dinner guests

Dec. 31, 2013 at 3:23 PM ET

It's generally considered a good thing to be sensitive to others' feelings. But a new study from Duke University has found an unexpected downside: It can set you up to make crappy food choices.

The study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, featured separate experiments designed to show how the food a person chooses -- both for him or herself and another person -- is affected by the other person's size. In one, participants were asked to pick a snack of either wheat crackers or chocolate chip cookies for someone they had just met. In some cases, the stranger was a healthy-sized woman; in other cases, the same woman was wearing a fat suit that made her appear significantly overweight. Researchers found that study participants tended to choose the same snack for themselves and the stranger perceived as overweight. It's not which snack that mattered, researchers wrote. Just the fact that the study subject selected the same snack for the other person suggested a fear of offending the overweight stranger.

In another experiment, participants told study authors that they believed it would be rude to give an overweight dinner guest unhealthy food while serving themselves something nutritious. The implication, according to the researchers: If you're heaping big spoonfuls of buttery sausage stuffing onto an overweight friend's plate, you'll likely ladle the same amount onto yours, too, so your friend doesn't think you're singling her out as someone with a big appetite.

So what's the takeaway? While it's good to be mindful of other people's feelings, you won't be doing yourself -- or a friend of any size -- a favor by overeating or consuming unhealthy food in an attempt to not offend them. Here's a novel idea: ask your guest or dining partner what they'd prefer and how much, and then consume whatever you're in the mood for, regardless of their answer.

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