December 12, 2013

How much do your friends’ eating choices influence yours?

The festive season brings many challenges for those wishing to make healthy food choices, and a new study presented to the Agricultural and Applied Economic Association in Washington DC suggests that the biggest challenge may be that we eat what our friends eat.

At less social times of the year, this may not be a problem. Most of us are able to influence our family to eat the same sorts of food as ourselves, especially if we are the ones who do the bulk of the shopping and cooking. This means that if you’re consciously making healthy choices, your family will likely follow your lead in making similar choices – especially if there are no other options available.

Social functions, whether they be restaurant meals, parties, or just catch-up drinks, happen all too often in the lead-up to the end of the year. Regardless of your – or their – intentions, you may find that your friends unintentionally influence your choices. The study shows that our sense of satisfaction with a meal is increased when we eat similar foods to our friends.

Imagine you’re seated between people who are going ‘all out’ with their ordering. You planned on having just a main course with a side salad. The person on one side orders entrée, main and dessert, while the person on the other asks for garlic bread for entrée, chips with the main, and a liqueur coffee with dessert. You feel like you’re missing out.

What if you’re sitting with a group of like-minded people? You all order just the main course and side salad; you enjoy the company, and your satisfaction with the meal is high. You feel good and the idea of ‘missing out’ doesn’t even cross your mind.

It’s one thing to plan ahead, but most of us feel uncomfortable jockeying for position to be seated next to whom we want. If you know there are people with similar eating goals, arrange to arrive at the same time or wait for each other at the front of the venue. Stand with that person while having a glass of mineral water before the meal, or even save a seat at the table, and you’ll have at least one friend who’ll be ordering a meal similar to yours. Both of you will feel confident in your choices and you’ll enjoy the meal more.

Using this information means that you can plan your dining companions as well as the meal. And the best part of all is that your healthy eating goals, and your weight, will be on the right track through the most difficult time of the year.

So you don’t have to avoid your friends, especially those who throw dietary care to the wind. You can actually use this as an exercise to develop your self control muscles. The good news is that after a while it will be like driving a car – automatic and effort free.