Is healthy eating contagious?
Food is a part of who we are. It connects us with our cultural roots and brings us together with loved ones.
Eating with others also has unexpected benefits. A study involving firefighters, for instance, found that squads who ate meals together showed better teamwork.
But how does social eating affect our food choices?
Other people have a surprising amount of sway when it comes to our diets. We tend to copy the eating patterns of those around us, so our diets are often similar to those of our family and friends.
This might seem obvious, as many of us often cook with or for others. However, evidence suggests that we may eat like our loved ones even when we’re eating without them.
Could this benefit our health?
A lot of research has explored how obesity can spread through families and social circles. Some scientists even compare obesity to a contagious disease.
There’s evidence that if an individual has a friend who develops obesity, their own risk goes up by 57%.
This could be due to similar food choices — and to similar exposure to other factors that contribute to the chance of developing obesity.
However, if we can copy unhealthy food choices, it makes sense that we can also pick up healthy habits from one another.
For example, a study on women's eating environments in Switzerland found that women who dine with healthy eaters are more likely to have higher-quality diets themselves, including more fruits and vegetables, fewer sweets, and less fast food.
These women were also more likely to have a lower body mass index (BMI).
Couples can also shape one another’s food choices. As relationships progress, our health-related behaviors tend to become more like those of our partners.
There are even examples of healthy habits spreading through larger communities.
Influencing a community
A study published in 2021 followed more than 6,500 hospital employees over 2 years to investigate how our eating patterns are shaped by our social networks.
It found that employees who usually ate their meals together bought similar foods. This included healthy items; the cafeteria used a traffic light food labeling system, and employees whose friends ate more "green" foods were more likely to eat more "green" foods themselves.
This effect was still present on days when friends ate apart, suggesting that our friends’ influence is there, even when they’re not.
Similar studies have shown that teenagers whose friends eat more fruits and vegetables are likelier to eat more of these themselves.
This unusual example of peer pressure might be just the encouragement to eat more plants that a young person needs.
It’s important to keep in mind that these associations don’t necessarily show a direct cause — it might just be that people with similar diets and lifestyles are more likely to become friends.
However, researchers have also noticed this effect outside of friendship circles.
A stranger’s influence
Scientists have shown that people’s food choices are influenced by the choices of strangers.
For instance, a 2018 study found that people ordering lunch at a cafe were more likely to choose the same meal option — vegetarian or meat — as the stranger in front of them.
Throughout our evolution, following social norms has helped human survival, and eating more plants does increase our life expectancy.
So, tapping into our influence over one another could be a new way to encourage people to have healthier diets.
However, social pressure can also work in the opposite direction.
Another study found that the anticipation of social stigma can put people off trying a plant-based diet. And vegetarian and vegan participants reported pressure from family and friends to eat meat.
Why is this effect so powerful?
Our tendency to mirror others, including their diets, is known as “modeling.” It begins from a young age, when children copy how their parents eat.
This is why children are more likely to try a new food if they see a parent enjoying it first. Learning from older members of a social group helps us make nutritious food choices.
However, as we move through to adulthood, modeling takes place for other reasons. And our desire to present ourselves in a good light to others can affect our food choices.
How does social eating affect how much we eat?
Eating is often intertwined with our social life, and understanding the connections between food and socializing can help us understand how social situations affect our eating habits.
However, the pattern of eating more with others didn’t apply to those with a BMI in the obese range. People in this group ate less with others, particularly if their dining companions had lower BMIs than themselves.
Does how much others eat affect our food intake?
Researchers have noticed that people often change how much they eat at social occasions to match those around them. We eat little when others eat little and more to mirror those around us.
It only takes one person in a group to “give permission” to others by eating more — then others are more likely to dig in.
This matching effect is more common in women than men, perhaps because society places pressure on women to eat less. This might make them more conscious while eating around others, so they take more notice of what others are eating.
Our food intake matching is so strong that it works even when the other person isn’t present.
Just seeing food wrappers — which suggest that someone else has had a snack — can cause us to eat the same snack.
Does the same thing happen online?
If just seeing food wrappers can influence what we eat, it seems logical that seeing food-related content on social media could have the same effect.
Many people post pictures of their meals, so we’re exposed to a range of these images.
A study of 369 university students suggests that the more fruit and vegetables we think we see others eating on social media, the more we eat ourselves.
The same was true for sugary drinks and high-energy snacks; the more the participants in the study saw others consuming them, the more likely they were to do so.
Being aware of these possible effects could help us notice the power of other people’s choices. It can help us make more mindful decisions while enjoying the company of others.
How can this information help you?
We often think of changing our relationship to food as a solitary journey that can feel long and lonely. But we might be more motivated if we see it as a group effort.
When people start exercising, they’re often encouraged to find a workout buddy who can provide company, motivation, and accountability.
It’s because modeling occurs — as we copy the behavior of those around us, exercising becomes a new norm. This approach could also work when making changes to our eating habits.
Research suggests that in couples, lifestyle changes for one partner can cause lifestyle changes for the other, and the same idea can apply to friendships.
So, if you’re looking to adopt healthy habits, think about which of your friends might want to join you on your journey — or bring you along on theirs.
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