Obesity: A Socially Transmitted Disease?

It may not be so difficult to make healthy choices on your own, but a new study finds that your friends could be derailing your diet.

March 6, 2014
Women eating pizza together

Picture this: You’re out to lunch with your coworkers. As everyone goes around the table placing orders, you hear, “I’ll have the cheeseburger with bacon,” and “I’ll have the fried calamari.” When it’s your turn, do you confidently order the salad, dressing on the side? Probably not. To avoid being the Debbie Downer of the bunch, you order something fun, festive, and -- most likely -- high in calories and fat.

A new report published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that obesity may be a socially transmitted disease. After looking at 15 studies from 11 publications, researchers found strong evidence that social norms influence people’s food choices. But how, exactly? Investigators discovered that when participants were told that others were making low-calorie or high-calorie food decisions, the participants’ chances of making similar decisions increased significantly. This also applied to the quantity of food consumed.

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Researchers believe this is tied to our need to establish a sense of social identity. If you strongly identify with a community, and that community eats a certain way, then you’ll want to align your eating habits with those of the community to maintain your social identity. Essentially, our eating habits are contagious

The scary part? The food choices you make can be impacted by social norms, even if you’re eating alone. According to the study’s lead investigator Dr. Eric Robinson, "Norms influence behavior by altering the extent to which an individual perceives the behavior in question to be beneficial to them. Human behavior can be guided by a perceived group norm, even when people have little or no motivation to please other people."

Before you go and cancel all activities on your social calendar, read these 5 tips from Rania Batayneh, MPH and author of The One One One Diet, on how to find healthy social influencers and avoid the not-so-healthy ones.

1. Prepare for scenarios in advance: If you know you’re going somewhere (like a family dinner or potluck), offer to bring a dish. That way, you’re contributing something healthy that everyone can enjoy, and there’s one guaranteed item at the gathering that won’t be too deleterious.

2. Stick to the three-bite rule: If there’s another birthday cake in the office kitchen, politely cut yourself a small piece. You avoid feeling left out from the celebration without completely derailing your healthy routine.

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3. Practice mindfulness: The point of these social situations is to laugh, talk, and connect with others. Focus on your companions instead of absentmindedly scarfing down your food. When you eat slowly and intentionally, you’ll be better equipped to notice cues that your body is full.

4. Choose your activities wisely: If you find someone in your social circle who has the same interests (exercising, cooking at home, or trying to lose weight) think about scheduling a hike vs. happy hour in your calendars. Quality time and exercise all in one shot!

5. Communication is key: Whether you’ve got friends who like to party every Thursday night, or indulge in heavy brunches every weekend, it’s important to be clear about your health goals. Don’t make up excuses -- be honest with your social circle. No one will mind if you have a cup of coffee instead of a mimosa on Sunday morning or if you sit Thursday out in favor of an early alarm for a workout on Friday morning!

—Written by Lauren Kodiak, Fitbie contributor

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