weighty issues

Do I Make This Quesadilla Look Fat?

Same person, same veggie quesadilla.
Same person, same veggie quesadilla. Photo: Courtesy of Cornell University

If you’re fat, when you post pictures of food online, people assume it’s less healthy than the same image posted by a thin person. Researchers at Cornell University wanted to see if weight bias affects the way we judge the healthiness of food, so they set out to determine whether people thought pictures of food shared online were more or less healthy depending on the size of the person who posted them.

For the study, published in the journal Health Communication, the researchers chose pictures of ten foods whose health value was “ambiguous,” that is, not objectively terrible for you, but not completely sinless either. Some examples: spinach salad with bacon and hard-boiled eggs, sliced beef with vegetables, a fruit-and-cheese plate, a black-bean-and-cheese quesadilla, and pancakes with blueberries and syrup. They posted each recipe along with a thumbnail image of the (supposed) poster. Half of the 230 participants saw a picture of a large-size woman and the other half saw a photo of the same person after she lost some weight. (They used real pictures of the same person, dubbed “Elizabeth Jones,” to make sure that weight was the only difference in the profile photo. Science!)

Though the subjects were shown the same ten food items, people who saw Elizabeth pictured when she was bigger rated the foods — and her! — as less healthy than people who saw her “after” photo. How swell.

Adding data didn’t overcome the bias. In a second study of the same size, participants were shown those same ten foods along with text listing calories and grams of fat — again, some with Elizabeth as bigger, and some of her as smaller. Again, people who saw Elizabeth at a larger size believed the meals she posted were less healthy than those she posted when thinner, despite them having the same nutrition info.

It should be noted that subjects in both groups reported their height and weight, and their average BMIs of 26.3 and 25.5, respectively, make them overweight by the government’s standards — it’s not like it was a bunch of rail-thin people asked to evaluate the food choices of someone heavier than them.

As more and more of us search for food info online, it’s important to understand how weight bias affects all of our perceptions of food, lead study author Jonathon Schuldt Ph.D. told the Cut. “Stereotypical beliefs about body weight can spill over to affect how we ‘see’ the same foods, specifically, as less healthy when they are associated with a heavier person,” says Schuldt, an assistant professor of communications at Cornell. “These beliefs are strong enough to override more objective information about the healthfulness of the meals, namely, their calorie and fat content.” If you’re looking for healthy recipes, consider the nutrition facts, not the person who Pinned it.

Do I Make This Quesadilla Look Fat?