No doubt many of you have overindulged at an all-you-can-eat buffet or two over the holidays. But did you feel guilty and uncomfortable after? If so, this feeling may be down to the price of the buffet, according to a new study.

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Researchers found diners who paid lower prices for an all-you-can-eat buffet reported greater feelings of guilt and fullness after eating than those who paid higher prices.

In the journal BMC Nutrition, researchers found that people who paid a lower price for an all-you-can-eat buffet experienced greater feelings of guilt and fullness after eating than those who paid a higher price, despite consuming the same amount of food.

According to study coauthors Brian Wansink, PhD, of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and Özge Siğirci, of Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey, many studies have identified volume and physical dimensions of food as key factors that influence feelings of fullness, and others have shown enjoyment of food diminishes as more is consumed.

However, the authors point out that no studies have looked at how the price one pays for a meal impacts subsequent feelings of fullness, regret or guilt – something they set out to investigate in this latest research.

Over a 2-week period, researchers approached individuals outside an Italian restaurant in New York.

Some individuals were given a flier that promoted an $8 all-you-can-eat buffet at the restaurant between 11 am and 1.30 pm, while some individuals were handed the same flier but were told they would receive a 50% discount and pay only $4 for the buffet.

In total, 139 adults took part in the study. They presented their flier as they approached the door to the restaurant and were asked if they would take part in a survey after their meal, in which they were asked how much they ate, whether they felt guilty about how much they consumed and whether they had feelings of physical discomfort and overeating.

Compared with diners who paid $8 for the all-you-can-eat buffet, those who paid $4 reported greater feelings of guilt, physical discomfort and overeating, and this finding remained after accounting for how much food was consumed.

Wansink and Siğirci hypothesize that lower-paying participants may have reported greater feelings of guilt and fullness because they may have been motivated to get their money’s worth.

“Charging a low price may influence consumers to set a lower expectation level about how much they should consume to get their money’s worth compared to the consumers who are charged a higher price,” they explain.

“This lower expectation level may cause low-price payers to feel guiltier and feel fuller at the end of the meal compared to the high-price payers although both of the groups consume the same amount of food,” they continue. “Thus, the low-price payers may experience more negative feelings compared to the ones who ate the same amount but paid a higher price.”

The findings could have important implications for the food industry, according to the researchers, who note that while low pricing can attract consumer attention, the negativity consumers may feel after eating may discourage them from returning to that restaurant.

Additionally, the team says the findings could help restaurants encourage healthier eating among consumers, noting that pricing moderately or offering a greater variety of healthier options in all-you-can-eat restaurants could be a “good starting point for restaurants both to lead their customers to eat healthier and/or feel less guilty.”

But it is not all down to the restaurants; Wansink says there is action we can take to ensure there are no feelings of guilt after dining out:

If you don’t want to experience guilt or feel stuffed after a meal, eat from a higher-priced all-you-can-eat buffet and focus on eating more healthy options instead of trying to ‘eat your money’s worth.'”

Last month, Medical News Today reported on another study by researchers from Cornell that suggested the price of food influences how we judge its quality.