Food for Thought: Can Eating Become a Contagious Habit?

Is Eating a Contagious Habit?

Did you know that if your friends make unhealthy food choices, you’re more likely to do so too?

This works in the opposite direction too. If you happen to have health-oriented friends, you’re more likely to make healthier choices as well. In fact, research has shown that women with friends who order fast food and soft drinks consume more of these than women with friends who make healthier menu choices. In the same study, women with friends who ate lots of produce also ate more of these healthy foods. Likewise, if your friends or your partner are struggling with their weight, you are likely to have a similar struggle yourself.

Are Eating Habits Contagious?

Researchers concluded that people who eat together at restaurants make similar menu choices because they like to fit in with everyone else. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

In fact, we don’t even have to know the person to end up copying their habits. Studies have shown that the body type and food choices of someone eating near us in a restaurant can influence what we pick and how much we eat.

The researchers in this study recruited an actress to wear fake padding that made her look 50 pounds heavier, and 82 students were served a spaghetti and salad lunch. When the actress wore the suit, the students ate 31 percent more pasta regardless of whether the actress served herself mostly pasta or mostly salad. When she wore the suit and served herself more salad, the students actually ate 43 percent less salad. The researchers commented that it was almost as though the students gave themselves permission to eat a less healthy meal because of the actress’s appearance, even when she served herself mostly salad.

Another reason for why we might make unhealthy choices is that we connect eating out in the company of friends and family with feeling happy and enjoying ourselves. We may unconsciously use food as a kind of tool for trying to create even more of those good feelings that we’re feeling, rather than for reasons related to nutrition or hunger. In other words, we may use food as a way of ramping up those good feelings that we are already feeling just from being a part of a happy celebration.

Every group, culture, family and workplace has its own set of customs or habits when it comes to how we eat, play and celebrate. In order to feel a sense of connection, we’re likely to follow the customs and habits of the people we spend time with – from the food we eat to the ways in which we like to spend our free time.

Tools for Success:

  • Plan – Map out your meal before you leave home. Know what you’re going to eat!
  • Awareness – Ask yourself: is this food going to nourish me? Why do I want it?
  • Honor Your Goals – Hold on to the reasons for wanting to reach/maintain a healthy weight
  • Be Mindful – Taste your food, eat slowly and savor every bite
  • Use Positive Affirmations – Give yourself praise for making healthy, strategic choices
  • Reflect – Remind yourself of your progress frequently
  • Be Assertive – Stand up for your health goals in the face of peer pressure

Doreen LernerAbout the Author: 

Doreen Lerner, PhD, is the Psychologist/Director for the Institute for Lifelong Weight Management. 

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