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How Social Factors Influence Eating

  • Eating

If you think that who you eat with and what they eat may affect your choice of food and the quantity you consume, you’d be spot on. Or so says the upcoming article, “Social influences on eating” in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences (vol. 9, 6/16, pp. 1-6) by Suzanne Higgs and Jason Thomas.

The authors say that “Our dietary choices…tend to converge with those of our close social connections. One reason for this is that conforming to the behaviour of others is adaptive and we find it rewarding.” If we eat with someone who is downing a large amount of food, then we are likely to follow what they eat and consume more than we would eat if we were dining alone. We’re also likely to eat a large amount if we eat in a group rather than by ourselves. Such ‘social-facilitation’ of eating has been well documented with evidence from food diaries, observational and experimental studies. Alternately, we might eat less if we think that eating a small amount will create a favourable social impression. One reason why other people have such an influence on our eating is that they provide a guide or norm for appropriate behaviour to fit in with.

Even granting that we are social creatures who are generally moved toward group norms, does the above research mean that you must eat differently when you’re dining with others or alone? With clear thinking and awareness, this need not be the case. Here’s how can you avoid joining the herd at feeding time.

  • First, know that this may occur if you don’t remain aware and tuned into appetite.
  • Second, recognize if you’re usually someone who’s swayed by what others are doing and find it difficult not to conform. If you are such a person, remind yourself that this may easily happen when eating with others.
  • Third, listen to what others are saying, but intentionally avoid copying their food choices and watching what, how and how much they eat. Keep your eyes on your own plate and turn up the volume on your own appetite signals.
  • Fourth, if others comment on what or how much you’re eating, smile and ignore them. Their job is to listen to their bodies and your job is to listen to yours. Be happy for others enjoying their food and for yourself for enjoying yours.

Be the exception to the rule and don’t be swayed by what or how much others eat. Make it a matter of pride that you don’t need approval from others on your eating. Enjoy being different from other diners because you’re taking care of your appetite.