Food tastes better with friends. Eating socially has inherent benefits over eating alone—sharing, laughing, and savoring the moments help us to also savor the food we eat. But is it also a potential source to make us unhealthy, too? According to a recent study, what your friends eat could impact the health of your diet. And if your friends have bad diet habits, they could be rubbing off on you, too.
The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that peer pressure actually has a significant impact on our dietary habits. After all, who wants to be the one to refuse a piece of cake after dinner or be the lone salad eater when everyone else is enjoying barbecue?
Eating bad foods socially might seem healthier than, say, polishing off a pint of ice cream at home alone. We're on our best behavior (usually) when in the company of others. If we're prone to bingeing or other unhealthy food habits alone, eating with others can help keep us on track. But, not really, says the study authors.
“It appears that in some contexts, conforming to informational eating norms may be a way of reinforcing identity to a social group, which is in line with social identity theory,” said Eric Robinson, lead investigator on the study and a psychologist at the University of Liverpool. “By this social identity account, if a person’s sense of self is strongly guided by their identity as a member of their local community and that community is perceived to eat healthily, then that person would be hypothesized to eat healthily in order to maintain a consistent sense of social identity.”
Should we call this peer pressure? Beer pressure? Pear pressure? Whatever we call it, the fact remains that even subconsciously we're observing the dietary choices of our friends, and we may let their bad diet habits rub off on us. The study found this to be true even with friends who seemed to eat healthy but consumed more calories. While you’re sitting there enjoying your social meal, you may be overeating.
But don't just skip the next meal opportunity with your friends. The study found that their influence could also extend to when you're eating alone, too. While it's nice to know that your friends' energy and personalities are always with you, there's a downside, particularly if they don't have a healthy diet.
“The evidence reviewed here is consistent with the idea that eating behaviors can be transmitted socially,” said Robinson. “Taking these points into consideration, the findings of the present review may have implications for the development of more effective public health campaigns to promote ‘healthy eating.’ Policies or messages that normalize healthy eating habits or reduce the prevalence of beliefs that lots of people eat unhealthily may have beneficial effects on public health.”
Of course, though, this means there's an upside, too. Surround yourself with friends who have healthy eating habits and those healthy behaviors also rub off.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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