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Fat suit diet: How our friends influence the way we eat

Feel like you're noshing on more junk food when out with certain friends? It could be because your companions are overweight. A new study reveals that when we share a meal with an overweight person (or someone in a fat suit), we are more likely to eat terribly. “We were interested in how people around us influence our eating behavior,” says Mitsuru Shimizu, one of the authors of the paper, w
spaghetti dinner with meat sauce and basil; Shutterstock ID 163299311; PO: TODAY.com
spaghetti dinner with meat sauce and basil; Shutterstock ID 163299311; PO: TODAY.comJoshua Resnick / Shutterstock / Joshua Resnick

Feel like you're noshing on more junk food when out with certain friends? It could be because your companions are overweight. 

A new study reveals that when we share a meal with an overweight person (or someone in a fat suit), we are more likely to eat terribly. 

“We were interested in how people around us influence our eating behavior,” says Mitsuru Shimizu, one of the authors of the paper, which will appear in the journal “Appetite.”

If we are eating with an overweight person, we tend to order the spaghetti instead of salad.Joshua Resnick / Today

To understand how people influenced each other's eating habits, Cornell University Food and Brand Lab researchers asked 82 undergraduate students to eat lunch, which included spaghetti and a salad, with an actress. The researchers randomly assigned the students to one of four conditions: 

  • In one situation, the actress wore a fat suit but served herself more salad than pasta. 
  • In the second, she wore a fat suit and served herself more pasta than salad.
  • In the third, she appeared without the fat suit and served herself more salad than pasta.
  • In the fourth, she appeared without the fat suit and served herself more pasta than salad. 

Then the researchers looked at how much the students ate. It wasn't a case of "I'll have what she's having." Even when the overweight person ate salad, her meal companions loaded up. 

“When they are eating with overweight eating companions, regardless of what she serves herself, participants ate more pasta,” Shimizu, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University. “They ate less salad even if the overweight person ate more [salad].”  


No matter how the actress served herself, people ate more pasta and less salad if she were wearing the fat suit. The reason? The researchers posit that when people are with someone who is overweight, they feel less motivated to be healthy.

“We have kind of healthy eating standards,” says Shimizu. “That goal is unconsciously … less activated when we are eating with an overweight person.”

The research isn't intended to fat-shame or pass the blame for our overeating. Instead, by understanding how environment and the people around us affects our eating habits, we can be more mindful of how much we're consuming.  

“If we are eating with an overweight person, we are eating more," says Shimizu.