People’s eating habits are influenced by their friends, according to study results released yesterday.

Snack food, a fat suit and a fake study about movies were used by researchers at the University of British Columbia, Duke University and Arizona State University to see if people can be influenced to eat more.

“Obesity is obviously a tremendous public health concern,” said Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor at Duke. “Because people often dine in social settings, we decided to investigate how someone’s size and food choices could influence how much the people around them order and eat."

Researchers told 210 students they were participating in a study about movie watching. Each was unknowingly partnered up with a member of the research team who is size 0 and weighs 105 pounds — but was also made to appear as size 16 and 180 pounds when wearing an obesity prosthesis.

In all cases — fat suit or natural — when the undercover researcher helped herself to larger servings, so did the student.

“Most participants took a portion similar to what the researcher served herself,” said Brent McFerran, assistant professor of marketing at UBC.

“However, it is clear that how much food each person took, and how much they ate, depended on whether their companion was thin or obese.”

In other words, if the thin researcher ate a lot or only a little, the participant followed suit. But when the researcher was obese, participants adjusted the amounts they ate and diminished the influence the researcher had on them.

“In terms of consumer health, our findings indicate that the size of the person you dine with matters much less than the size of the meal they order,” said Fitzsimons. “If a heavy-set colleague eats a lot, you are likely to adjust your behavior and eat less. But a thin friend who eats a lot may lead you to eat more than you normally would.”

The findings will appear online this week in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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