Do people eat more to gain social standing?

Consumers who perceive themselves to be of a lower socio-economic status will often choose larger food portions in a bid to show they are of a higher standing, new research has suggested. Published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the study argues that this is an approach sometimes taken by those who feel unable to improve their predicament, but also describe it as a worrying state of affairs.

Investigators from HEC Paris and Northwestern University noted that while many cultural norms associate larger products with status - such as a house or a television set - bigger food portions might also be used in this manner.

The authors explained individuals may follow such a route in order to compensate for their undesirable position, observing: "This research further proposes that the tendency to use the size of food options within an assortment will be particularly strong among those consumers who feel powerless."

Dr Sheila Keegan, a British Chartered Psychologist, is a little sceptical of this thesis: "While it is true that there is a higher proportion of people who are overweight in lower socio-economic groups, our experience is not that they choose larger portions in a bid to show they are of higher standing, although this may be true in certain ethnic groups and small sub-sections of the population.

"However it is not typical of the mainstream British public that we have researched, especially women, who have quite a different relationship to food than do men.

"Overeating is generally associated with a number of factors - physical (lack of exercise, poor diet etc) and also a range of psychological factors - depression, lack of self esteem and self worth, self punishment, a sense of powerless.

"Overweight people often feel that eating is one of the few areas that they can exert control but, paradoxically, over-eating makes them feel out of control.

"The researchers' conclusion that eating large portions is a bid to show they are of higher standing does not fit with our research. More typically we would see over-eating amongst the overweight/obese as a form of self-punishment, which often confirms people in their belief that they have low status in a society that reveres slimness and fitness."