Serve Yourself for Health

By Sandy Todd Webster
Feb 17, 2017

We already know that regular physical activity is linked to overall better health. Now, research from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business has shown that being more physically invested in serving ourselves food can influence behavior that might otherwise lead us to overeat.

Think of it this way: If the waitperson at your favorite restaurant or your spouse serves you a giant piece of pie with ice cream, it’s somehow easier to dodge responsibility for inhaling the entire thing. Behaviorally, you can justify that “it’s not your fault” since you didn’t serve that portion to yourself—even though you ate it and licked the plate.

“It’s really about people asking themselves, ‘Should I have this indulgent cheesecake? Probably not,’” said Linda Hagen, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at USC Marshall. “But if they are served by someone else, they know it’ll be easy to ‘get away with it’ without feeling guilty.”

Hagen and her colleagues will present their findings in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.

“The diner who seizes a serving bowl, takes hold of a serving spoon and scoops a helping of food onto her plate incriminates herself more in helping herself to the food than one who is merely handed a plate filled by a server or who takes a prepackaged portion of a meal from a display shelf,” wrote Hagen and her colleagues.

Interestingly, this effect emerges only if a food is viewed as unhealthy—because people feel guiltier about eating big portions of unhealthy food, according to the researchers.

In one study with frozen yogurt, a food some view as healthy and others as unhealthy, researchers had people choose what cup size they wanted, ranging from a small 2-ounce cup on up to a 5-ounce cup. Some were asked to serve themselves, as they would at home; that is, they picked their cup size, then scooped their own portion. Others were told to choose their own cup and let a research assistant fill it up. The second group selected significantly larger cups, while people who served themselves chose significantly smaller portions. “Again, we saw this effect clearly in people who think of frozen yogurt as unhealthy,” said Hagen.

The authors suggest that their findings offer insight for how marketers, policymakers and consumers themselves may reduce the incidence and volume of unhealthy eating. Public entities might combat overindulgence and obesity by implementing serve-yourself pay-per-weight setups in certain dining environments, like school cafeterias, where we want to encourage students to make healthy choices.

“Likewise, consumers may leverage these insights to nudge themselves toward healthier decisions,” Hagen and her colleagues wrote. “For example, making it a rule to formally serve oneself even from a so-called single-serve package may help consumers hold themselves accountable for, and in turn curb their portions of, even small snacks that they consume during the day. Using family-style bowls so that everyone can serve their own portion may aid in reducing portions as well.”

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Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster is the editor in chief of IDEA’s award-winning publications. She is Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified and is a Rouxbe Certified Plant-Based Professional cook.

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