“Whenever I need to lose 5 pounds quickly, I try to eat my meals with M,” a friend told me. Our mutual friend, M, was at least 15 pounds underweight, and was known for indicating that she was full after eating less than a quarter of the food on her plate. “We went away for a long weekend,” my friend continued, “and I matched her bite for bite for three days. I think I lost a pound a day. Of course I put the weight back on, but that was after I was able to get into a dress I had to wear for a wedding.”
My friend’s experience is not only not unique but studied in laboratory situations to measure the influence of social compared to solitary eating on calorie or energy intake. Studies have shown that individuals may depend on cues from others to continue or stop their eating. Ordering, sharing, or skipping dessert is a familiar example of how the eating behavior of others can influence what we eat. When we eat with one couple who are self-identified chocoholics, I know that a chocolate dessert, to be shared, will probably be ordered. Other friends and family members never even consider eating anything after the main course.
The effect of eating with others on our food choices is more complex, however, than whether or not we eat dessert. It often depends on the degree of familiarity with our dining companions. According to a study by Hetherington and colleagues, energy intake increased by 18% when individuals were eating with friends, but did not increase at all when eating with strangers. The marketing of snack foods demonstrates this. Advertisements for snack foods and beverages to accompany them show groups of friends eating and drinking and “having fun.” This is especially true during the weeks leading up to a major sporting event to be shown on television. Usually, the advertisement has a group of people huddled or cuddled together on a sofa gorging on highly-caloric snack foods. And even though the solitary eater may munch on snack food while watching television alone, the researchers found that calorie intake by an individual watching television alone was lower (14%) than when the individual was eating with others.
However, it is not inevitable that eating with others will affect what we eat and how much. The influence on our eating behavior by others depends in part on our relationship with them, ie, whether or not we may allow them to influence our food choices. In their report on how our eating is influenced by social factors, Higgs and Thomas found that it depends on how relevant the eating of another is to us. When my friend wanted to lose weight, M’s eating was relevant. But the rest of the time, it didn’t influence her at all.
A notable example of the impact of a social group modeling the eating of a new member of the group is seen in the movie, The Devil Wears Prada. The newbie on a fashion magazine staff, Anne Hathaway goes out to lunch with her fellow employees. She is hungry and orders a hamburger and fries; the others look at her as if she were a cannibal and they order their salads, no dressing. The message is quickly learned: one does not eat like an ordinary hungry human being if one works in the fashion industry. And a young female relative told me that she noticed her classmates eating differently when males were present at their college dining room table than when only women were eating together. “We would eat normally when there were only women at the table, but when guys were around, my female classmates tended to eat very little. Maybe they thought a guy would assume they were or would become fat if they had a regular-size meal ”
One should not resort to silent bullying as experienced by the Hathaway character, or imagined criticism by classmates of one’s food intake to alter food choices. There is a positive way of having a social situation affect eating behavior, especially when someone is attempting to lose weight, ie, an eating companion.
An eating companion is someone who follows a sensible, healthy diet and who by example might be able to influence the eating of someone trying to make better food choices and lose weight. Having such an eating buddy is most useful during the beginning weeks of a diet when the dieter is having difficulty adjusting to a new food regimen, and several weeks later when boredom, discouragement at the rate of weight loss, frustration at still having to avoid highly caloric food, or impatience at paying attention to portion size sets in. Sharing mealtime with an eating companion gives the dieter access to someone who is comfortable with making healthy food choices, not obsessive about strictly observing portion sizes, or avoiding consuming some so-called forbidden ingredient like butter, or following diets that eliminate essential nutrients such as carbohydrates. The eating buddy is, in a sense, a model of how to integrate healthy eating into one’s life without making it take over one’s life. An analogy would be someone who exercises frequently but is not obsessive about it, manages to incorporate some physical activity into the routine of daily life, and derives pleasure from doing so.
M, the woman my friend eats with when she wants to lose weight, would not be an appropriate eating buddy because her eating, or its lack thereof, is extreme (although she is not anorexic). My friend would have been better served in her quest to lose weight by eating with others who consume normal amounts of food, allow themselves to eat carbohydrates and desserts (shared) occasionally, consume alcohol sparingly but do drink, and who also avoid eating foods that are high in calories (fried clams, cream soups, heavily dressed lobster rolls, whipped cream topped coffee concoctions).
Perhaps one reason so many of us are obese is that we are in the company of too many overeaters whose eating behavior we copy. When smoking no longer became socially acceptable and smokers were relegated to standing outside to smoke, many who had been social smokers stopped. Not smoking became the new normal.
So, too, if we “hang out” with eating buddies who eat salads, fruit, lean protein, low or fat-free carbohydrates, and calcium-rich dairy products and they don’t stress about it, eating that way may become the new normal for more of us.