What We've Learned: Eating

Recent insights from Duke research on diet, eating, and obesity.
August 8, 2012

Labels may not be helping us watch our diets much. A study led by the Fuqua School of Business found that in the two decades since foods were required to carry “Nutrition Facts” labels, the actual nutritional quality of food products in supermarkets has decreased. Researchers say food companies are responding more to consumers’ demand for bettertasting foods, which seems to trump whatever is on the label.

If you can’t eat less, just don’t eat more. In a recent study, Duke psychology professor Gary Bennett A.M. ’99, Ph.D. ’02 showed that patients who were advised simply not to eat more than they already do were able to maintain their weight longer than other patients. Although the sample was small, the study suggests subtle methods of diet control may be more successful than asking patients to dramatically alter their diets.

Sides matter. A good portion of the calories in a fast-food meal comes from inexpensive side dishes such as fries, rice, and pasta—which often aren’t what consumers really want. When Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely Ph.D. ’98 and a colleague set up an experiment at a campus Chinese restaurant, they found one-third of customers were happy to receive a smaller portion of rice or noodles, even when downsizing didn’t save them money.

Even the status quo would be good news. A new forecast by Duke public-health researchers estimates that 32 million more Americans will become obese in the next twenty years. If that could be prevented and obesity rates stayed level, the U.S. would stand to save $550 billion in health-care costs during the next two decades, the researchers say.