Zenn Wong investigates the claims and risks of all-you-can-eat buffets.
With the rise in popularity of vegetarianism, as well as a general increase in health-consciousness (see: trendy-yet-dubious juice cleanses and paleo diets, organic-all-natural-low-fat-no-artificial-additives-no-everything groceries, the inescapable cult of ‘courgetti’ – faux spaghetti made from spiral-cut courgette) it’s a small wonder that all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants still seem to be doing reasonably well, or even thriving in some cases.
These buffets lure customers with unlimited servings of a mind-boggling variety of cuisines, from Chinese to Indian to Tex-Mex, all at what they claim to be a fairly reasonable price point for the amount of food promised. The main options in Cardiff city centre charge around £8 to £15, depending which day you go and whether you have lunch or dinner. However, more decadent options are known to exist in places such as Las Vegas, USA, where the Bacchanal restaurant buffet costs US$50.99 (around £33, or the cost of a student’s food for a week, according to the university’s living costs calculator) for a weekend dinner that includes options such as premium Kobe beef and made-to-order soufflés.
The argument that holds this all together is that for the price you are paying, you have the option to eat however much you want, up to or beyond the value of what you paid. This shifts the onus of obtaining value-for-money-ness almost completely to the diner – that’s you – as opposed to the restaurant owners. Paid £15 but only had a tiny plate of mediocre sweet and sour chicken? That’s no one’s fault but yours; you could have gotten more. This causes diners to feel an increased need to make sure that they eating their money’s worth. In fact, a cursory Google search for “how to get money’s worth” yields three buffet-related suggestions out of four. And if it’s one thing we all know, it’s that Google’s suggestions reflect the innermost desires of the human spirit.
This preoccupation of diners to get their money’s worth at all-you-can-eat buffets has led to these restaurants having a poor reputation in terms of health and nutritional value.
The first obvious reason for this is that diners are easily tempted to overeat. When faced with such an overwhelming amount of food on display in the restaurant, this is easy to see. The dizzying array of food adds fuel to the flames, as diners often feel compelled to try a bit of everything on offer. In fact, a study conducted by the John Hopkins Medical Hospital and University in the USA found that subjects ate considerably more yoghurt when offered a selection of flavours, as opposed to only being given one flavour, and a similar result was observed when different subjects were given either a selection of sandwiches with a selection of fillings, or just sandwiches in one standard filling. This lethal combination of quantity and variety makes all-you-can-eat buffets exceptionally unhelpful for the self-control of diners.
The second reason is that as buffet foods tend to be cooked in large quantities yet still face the requirement of being low cost, many of these dishes end up containing artificial additives, or heavily processed ingredients. For instance, as the food is often left out in the restaurant for extended periods of time, it is likely that the dishes contain large amounts of preservatives to help them hold up. In addition, in order to ensure profitability, ingredients used to prepare the food must also be low-cost and thus tend to be of lower quality. Many of these dishes are thus ‘enhanced’ with additives such as high fructose corn syrup (nasty stuff that has strong links to obesity, according to the wisdom of Science) and monosodium glutamate (aka MSG – so good, but so bad). All this conjures the image of your food being cooked in a huge cauldron with ladlefuls of trans fats and dodgy artificial stuff – not exactly the epitome of health.
The third reason is that with large amounts being cooked at one go, safe storage of food becomes an issue. Over in the US, in 2013, an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant in Florida was caught with its perishable food items, including meat, ‘stored’ beside a skip at the back of the restaurant in order to avoid being penalised by health inspectors who were examining the kitchen interiors. In a case a little closer to home, in early 2015, a buffet restaurant in Liverpool screeched to a sudden and unannounced closure following a routine health inspection which reported hygiene concerns in all of the restaurant’s multiple kitchens. All this is worsened by the fact that there is often no way to tell how many other people, especially fellow diners, may have touched your food before it got to your plate, increasing the risk of contamination and in turn food poisoning.
The final health concern is that all-you-can-eat buffets may encourage an unhealthy diet of binge eating and starving. Before eating at a buffet restaurant, diners are more likely to eat significantly less than a healthy amount, either to cut daily caloric intake, or to ‘save space’ for the large meal later on in order to get their money’s worth. This in turn makes it even more likely that the person will overeat at the buffet, an issue already highlighted a few paragraphs above. This may then be followed by post-overeating emotions of regret and guilt, leading to the diner feeling compelled to eat less for the next meal or skip it entirely. This increases the likelihood of a person getting caught in a binge/starve cycle in which blood sugar levels fluctuate rapidly, as opposed to a healthier and more moderate diet.
When all’s said and done, it’s not all doom and gloom for you if you’ve been planning a trip to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Just be sure to maintain a moderate diet before and after the buffet, exercise some self-control, and above all, don’t get too caught up in getting your money’s worth. Even if you do eat your £15 worth in low-cost, additive-laden food, the experience after may not be worth it in the end.
– Zenn Wong