Dec. 8, 2016

Men are at risk of overeating in social settings, study shows

Gorging at a holiday meal or friend’s barbecue might have more to do with your ego than the quality of the food – especially if you’re a man.

“Even if men aren’t thinking about it, eating more than a friend tends to be understood as a demonstration of virility and strength,” said Kevin Kniffin, visiting assistant professor and applied behavioral scientist in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Kniffin and Cornell Food and Brand Lab Director Brian Wansink conducted a study that demonstrates that men are at particular risk of overeating in social situations. The study appeared Nov. 24 in Frontiers in Nutrition.

The researchers recruited college-age students of similar weight to participate in a chicken wing eating challenge. Two teams – comprising two males and two females each – were given 30 minutes to eat as many chicken wings as they wished, while a control group was given the same time frame to eat as much as they wanted without any competition.

The two teams were told they were competing against their peers to eat as many as they could with one small difference – one team was also surrounded by a bunch of cheering spectators.

The prize for eating the most wings was a worthless plastic medal, but competitors still ate about four times more food than those in the control group who were provided as much food as they wanted without taking part in the competition.

Furthermore, for those in the competition, the men who ate in front of spectators ate 30 percent more than those without spectators, and they described the experience as challenging, cool and exhilarating. Women, on the other hand, ate about one-third less with spectators than without them and described the experience as slightly embarrassing.

The researchers conclude that the difference in experience reported between males and females is indicative of a larger social phenomenon – men feel empowered to overeat around others while women do not. As a result, men are more at risk than women for overeating in social situations.

“Focus on your friends and not the food,” said Wansink, lead author of the study. He noted that these findings have obvious implications – from tailgates, to holidays, to all-you-can-eat night – and added, “If you want to prove how macho you are, challenge your friend to a healthy arm wrestle instead of trying to out-eat him.”

For more about this study, visit: http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/discoveries/eating-occasion.

Katie Baildon is a communications specialist for the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.