"Can I interest you in some dessert tonight?" Those of us with weight issues dread that inevitable inquiry at the end of a restaurant meal. Too often, we override our instincts and opt for indulgence.
No doubt a combination of factors pushes us in this unfortunate direction, but new research points to one you probably haven't thought of: the weight of your waiter.
A study from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab reports diners were nearly four times more likely to order dessert if their waiter was heavy rather than slim. Compared to their counterparts with svelte servers, these customers also ordered an average of 17 percent more alcohol.
"Diners may order and eat more food and beverages in the presence of a heavy person, because a heavy person sets a social norm," write Tim Doering of Germany's Friedrich Schuller University and Cornell's Brian Wansink. As Doering elaborated in a press statement, "We are tremendously susceptible to cues that give us a license to order, and eat, what we want."
The odds of overweight people ordering dessert rose from just over 15 percent to around 21 percent if their server was similarly chubby.
It's clear by now that all sorts of environmental cues can influence our eating choices. Previous studies have pointed to lighting, music, and even the weight of our dining companions. It has also been shown that restaurant dining plays a major role in the obesity epidemic, since we tend to consume more calories eating out than we do when making our own meals at home.
This latest study, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, featured data on 497 diners at 60 full-service restaurants around the United States (plus a few in France and Spain). Data was collected at chain restaurants such as Olive Garden and TGIF, as well as independent establishments.
Researchers estimated the weight, height, and body type of each server and diner, roughly calculating their body-mass index. They then noted how much food and alcohol the patron ordered, focusing specifically on whether they ordered an appetizer and/or dessert.
"Diners ordered and consumed significantly more paid meals if served by a heavy server, regardless of their own body type," Doering and Wansink report. "Ordering rates were not significantly different between groups for soup and salad, but were significantly different for appetizers and desserts."
One chart shows only four percent of relatively thin diners who had similarly skinny servers ordered dessert. But that figure grew to around 14 percent if they had a heavy server.
The difference was more modest among heavy diners, mainly because they were much more likely to order dessert either way. But the odds of overweight people ordering dessert rose from just over 15 percent to around 21 percent if their server was similarly chubby.
"The observational nature of this research does not allow us to draw clear causalities," the researchers caution, noting that the "underlying mechanism causing diners to eat more in the presence of overweight wait staff" is a matter of speculation.
But whatever the reason, the effect is clear enough, and Doering and Wansink argue it makes two policy-related points. First of all, weight discrimination against heavy servers is not only unfair, but counterproductive. "If anything, heavy wait staff might increase sales," they write.
Second, it emphasizes the importance of diligent diners deciding ahead of time how much they are planning to eat when they go out—and then sticking to the plan.
So that skinny server may be doing you a favor, without either of you realizing it. Surely that's worth a plus-size tip.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.