A trip to an all-you-can-eat buffet may have you cringing at the very thought that this could become another cheat day in your diet. The endless line of delicious, mouthwatering plates of food can leave you in a pickle trying to select the best foods that won’t cost you to lose your waist line. Buffet diners can now rejoice in some good news: healthy foods placed first in line may lessen your desire to choose higher-calorie dishes later in line, according to a recent study.

Publishing in the journal PLOS One, Drs. Brian Wansink and Andrew Hanks sought to investigate the effects that buffet dish order has on the foods that end up on a diner’s plate. The study was conducted at a conference where 124 attendees were served a seven-item breakfast buffet from two separate tables in a dining area.

The attendees were randomly assigned to choose their breakfast from one of the two buffet tables. Fifty-nine attendees served themselves from the fruit-first line while 65 served themselves from the cheesy-eggs-first line. The food was arranged in opposite order on the two buffet lines. On one line, diners saw healthy foods like fruit, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat granola first, while the other line saw high-calorie foods such as cheesy eggs, fried potatoes, and bacon first. The participants in the study were advised that they could only make one trip to the buffet line.

The findings supported the researchers’ hypothesis that foods presented first influenced the food choices that diners would make afterward. More than 85 percent of diners took fruit when it was offered first, while 55 percent took fruit when it was offered last, according to the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. When cheesy eggs were presented first, 76 percent of diners opted for the high-calorie dish while only 28.8 percent took the dish when it was offered last. Two-thirds of an eater’s plate was filled with at least one of the first three foods in the line. When high-calorie foods are placed first, this moves diners to select other heavy foods.

"There's an easy take-away here for us…always start at the healthier end of the buffet," said Dr. Wansink, Medical Xpress reports. “Two-thirds of your plate will be the good stuff!"

A surprising correlation was found between the first food offered and the eaters' subsequent choices. The researchers found that, when cheesy eggs were presented first, diners felt more compelled to choose potatoes and bacon. However, when fruit was offered first, there was no correlation with selection of another item. This finding highlights the cultural and social associations between eggs and bacon/potatoes, whereas fruit is not commonly associated with any specific type of dish.

"Each food taken may partly determine what other foods a person selects. In this way, the first food a person selects triggers what they take next," wrote the researchers.

In a similar study, researchers found that diners who surround themselves with friends who make healthy food choices generally tend to eat healthier. Ordering as a group prompted peers to select the same items from the same menu categories. Peer pressure was found to make diners enjoy dishes that they otherwise would never order.

Sources: Wansink B, Hanks AS. Slim by design: How the presentation order of buffet food biases selection. PLOS ONE. 2013.

Ellison B, Lusk JL. “I’ll Have What He’s Having”: Group Ordering Behavior in Food Choice Decisions. Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. 2013.