We’ve all heard the phrase “You are what you eat,” but the latest research reveals that “who you eat with” may be just as important! You want to think as much about who you eat with as where you eat and what you eat. Social norms strongly influence the type and amount of food we eat as well as our exercise habits. This happens subconsciously, so your friends, family and co-workers may have more of an influence on your weight than you know!
Friends’ health decisions have a funny way of rubbing off on us (even if we don’t realize). The WHO (World Health Organization) lists friends as a determinant of health, as big a factor as genetics and income level! Smoking, deciding to get the flu shot, and taking vitamins are all contagious behaviors. But where our friends have perhaps the most influence is on how much we eat, drink, and exercise.
Without my friends I never would have completed a marathon, without my co-workers I never would have developed an affinity for Starbucks, and without my family I never would have explored my love for healthy cooking. Efforts to lose weight and lead a healthy lifestyle are influenced both positively AND negatively by people closest to you, including your friends, family, spouse, and even co-workers. Below are the Top 5 ways your social circle can influence your weight.
1) Happy Hours and late night nachos
You had plans to hit the gym, but the rest of your co-workers decide to hit up Happy Hour to celebrate the end of the workweek. Your social circle influences your eating AND drinking habits! You don’t want to be the only one not going and the chances of you heading to the gym after a couple drink are slim to…well basically none. Alcohol is a notorious diet buster, not to mention the half price mozzarella sticks the group orders, and you can’t help but sample. BEWARE- If more than seven friends dine together, they will consume 96% more than they would solo (de Castro 1994). Normally light eaters consume more when munching with a group, while heavier eaters eat less when dining with companions. A long Friday night out with friends also makes it near impossible to resist late night nachos after a couple hours at the Margarita bar! Sound familiar?
2) Who’s up for a coffee break? Boss is buying!
Co-workers can unknowingly torpedo weight loss efforts. The seemingly endless office celebrations and corporate events provide a steady stream of sugary indulgence that can sabotage your efforts to eat healthfully. While coffee breaks and corporate parties can foster camaraderie, they entice mindless eating! Sitting at a desk for 8+ hours will make anyone ready for a break. Coffee breaks are often “boss-approved,” making it difficult to decline. You may not have needed that Starbucks run, but once suggested you’ll most likely participate!
3) What is your perception of normal?
We are constantly comparing ourselves to the people that surround us. This extends to what we eat and what we think other people are eating. Is it normal to go out to eat every weekend? Order late night pizza? Go out to lunch with co-workers? It appears that conforming to informational eating norms may be a way of reinforcing identity to a social group. These findings appear to be true even when people eat alone. Your idea of what constitutes an acceptable meal is likely to conform to what and how much you think your peers eat on a regular basis. Chances are, you’ve been out with a friend and something like this happens: You notice your favorite pasta dish on the menu, but tell yourself, Oh, I really shouldn’t. Then your friend orders that Fettuccine alfredo, taking you by complete surprise! “Make it two,” you say- and you kiss your diet goodbye. Scientists suspect that social network influences (what its members perceive as normal and acceptable) are major factors in these decisions. This social interaction will eventually have an effect on the size of our waistlines, and our long-term health! Those who we share meals with have similar exercise habits and often influence our view of normal.
4) Want to go for a run?
As a whole, social influence is positively associated with exercise behaviors intentions and attitudes. Social encouragement has a direct influence on exercise motivation and behavior. Couch potatoes are more likely to get moving and stick with activity programs if supportive friends are involved. Group cohesion and social interaction and positive reinforcement are strong motivators to starting and maintaining and exercise regime. The lacrosse workouts in college were much easier to survive knowing my teammates were right there with me. Training for my first marathon with friends made it that much easier to stick to the training plan! Multiple studies confirm that enthusiastic friends are essential to developing and sustaining healthier fitness habits. Close companions play a powerful role in molding fitness habits through social modeling- our tendency to mimic the actions of those around us. It all boils down to motivation and support. Experts suggest inviting friends to join you for a walk, exercise class or start training for a race together.
5) Can we see the dessert menu?
Ever been out at a restaurant with friends and had this grand plan to stick to your “diet” with a salad? Then your pal next to you gets cheese fries as an app, something sparks within you and you think “eh it’s ok, she did it, so I’ll just get the Mac and Cheese.” How about when you’re satisfied and ready for the check when the waiter comes back with the dessert menu. You’re about to decline when your friend announces “brownie sundae with enough spoons for the table.” How can you resist? We may even be hard-wired to be influenced by our friends. We focus on what we see other people doing (like ordering that brownie dessert), not what we know is right for ourselves (opting for that salad).
The average person makes over 200 food decisions every day. Deciding what and where to eat are just two pieces of the dining puzzle- the third aspect is with whom. Individuals can undermine others’ weight-loss plans by encouraging unhealthy eating habits or sedentary behavior. Research has shown that a person’s chance of becoming obese increases by 57% if a close friend if obese, 40% is a sibling is obese, and 37% if a spouse is obese. While obesity seems to have a “contagious” element, so does physical activity and healthy eating!
Good or bad, friends shape thoughts, emotions, habits- and our physical bodies. Social support is linked to a myriad of health benefits ranging from improved mental health to a more robust immune system. The strength of these benefits is tied to the size of the social network, the emotional aspects it provides and the act of lending mutual support.
Friends may have our backs, but their health and fitness habits can literally shape our backsides. Chances are we’ve chosen our friends for reasons other than their exercise habits and we can’t choose our co-workers or family members. So what can you do to stay healthy?
- Put a lid on candies and sweet at work. Covering them with foil or a lid will curb mindless munching. Think out of sight, out of mind.
- View the veggies: leave these uncovered to promote healthier grazing.
- Socialize and celebrate without food. Go for a walk or attend a healthy cooking class instead.
- Limit happy-hour drinks/alcohol- there will always be another time that fits with your schedule!
- Avoid desktop dining. Aim to eat lunch away from your desk.
- Set an example: bring in healthier snacks like fresh fruit, and replace the candy with dried fruit or nuts.
- Strength in numbers! Join a program with your friends and co-workers that promotes healthy eating. Check out our next Beautiful University program starting December 1st. (Sign up on our homepage for additional details and to find out more about Early Bird pricing).
- Tell your friends what specific support you need: suggest activities that don’t involve eating/help me avoid my triggers.
- Take advantage of a Facebook or Twitter account to talk about successes and challenges and track progress over time.
- Enlist a friend to be “on call” when temptation ensues or if motivation is needed.
Let us know what you PLAN to do from the list above? Have your own idea?- share it with us in a comment below.
Live your WHOLE life,
Shannon + Meg
Information obtained from Harvard School of Public Health and IDEA Health & Fitness Association.