What makes us eat more when we eat out? “First, it’s bigger servings,” says Deborah Cohen, who has served on technical and advisory panels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Restaurants typically serve us more calories than we can burn, and people are eating out more often,” she explains.
A recent authoritative review examined 72 studies and concluded that if you serve people larger portions, they eat more. “It’s automatic,” Cohen stresses.
Another way restaurants encourage us to eat more is by offering combo meals.
“People like them because they look like a better value, and you may save some money compared to ordering items separately,” says Cohen.
“But people also order a combo meal because they have to make only one decision. If they didn’t get a combo with a burger, fries, and Coke, they’d have to make three decisions.”
One study found that if people had to order foods separately, in most cases they’d order only two of the three items in the combo. They’d skip either the fries or the soda and end up saving money and getting fewer calories. Restaurants don’t want that.
And menus also push us to buy certain foods.
“Companies use eye-tracking equipment to see how people scan a page, so they know that where on the menu a dish appears influences what people choose,” says Cohen. The upper right-hand corner, for example, is known as the “sweet spot.” Newspapers put the big news in the upper right-hand corner of the front page because that’s where people look first.
“Or, menus might put an expensive item next to another dish that’s even pricier, so the first item looks more reasonable,” she notes.
“Restaurants also know that people are more likely to choose things that are listed first or last in a section. And of course the foods that they highlight or put in boxes get noticed more and get chosen more.” Ka-ching!
A lot of restaurant meals have 1,000 calories, which is excessive enough. But some meals from popular restaurants hit 2,000 or more calories. A full day’s load in just one sitting! Here are some examples of high-calorie restaurant meals we call Xtreme Eating.
Deborah Cohen is a physician and senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. She is the author of A Big Fat Crisis: The Hidden Influences Behind the Obesity Epidemic—and How We Can End It (New York: Nation Books). Cohen has served on technical and advisory panels for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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