- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

The giant cheese ball, a savory roast, oceans of gravy and, heavens, that figgy pudding — America is bracing for the proverbial Christmas meals and the ensuing holiday get-togethers.

Diners, however, would be wise to keep an eye on Great Aunt Madge in all her delicate propriety, rather than the calorie counter. Madge, nibbling on just a bit of this and that, is an unwitting role model for etiquette — not to mention diet.

There’s another, and underrated, reason to have good manners — it helps avoid the holiday pounds, at least according to some Canadian researchers who are saying the medical community spends too much time dwelling upon appetites and not enough on social mores and decorum.

“Socially informed perceptions” of food have a greater impact on our eating habits than feelings about hunger or fullness, said University of Toronto psychologists C. Peter Herman and Janet Polivy. They published their findings in Physiology & Behavior, a journal of the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society.

The pair pored over 30 years of research about overeating to conclude that although doctors emphasize hunger and satiety as the root of the obesity epidemic, those two factors are usually not the most significant causes of overeating.

It’s socializing.

“People are often rudderless in eating situations, and they look to the activity of others, their own previous behavior or other social cues to guide them and thereby consume more than they need,” Mr. Herman said.

For better or worse, easily swayed humans eat, or overeat, according to social situation.

“Frequently, eating occurs within what we have termed a zone of biological indifference, in which the individual is neither genuinely hungry nor genuinely sated,” Mr. Herman said. “Without any particular biological reason to start, continue or stop eating, we are particularly vulnerable to socially based influences.”

Americans mimic their table mates — right down to portion size and food choice, he said, citing two distinct dining moments to make his point. Hoping not to appear gluttonous, the typical diner politely will refuse second helpings at a formal meal — but race to the salad bar for seconds at an all-you-can-eat buffet among family and friends.

Perhaps we are hard-wired already for such behavior at this point. Even etiquette maven Emily Post advised in 1922, “At formal dinners, guests should not ask for second helpings.”

Meanwhile, the researchers hope physicians will take their conclusions seriously.

“Norms of appropriateness have yet to achieve mainstream status in current medical research into obesity and overeating, and in public policy,” Ms. Polivy said. “No one seems to be aware of the power that social influence has on eating.”

Those social influences, however, tend to vary around the globe. While Americans’ dietary downfall continues to be casual fast food — we spendmore than $110 billion on burgers and fries each year — other countries have their weaknesses. The Irish, for example, consume the most calories a day — 3,952, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Australians eat the most ice cream (35 pints per person, per year), while Swedes eat the most breakfast cereal (22 pounds per person). The Swiss hold the chocolate record — each eats over 25 pounds annually.

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