go with friends who make healthy choices, researchers say.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you may want to find a slim friend to dine out with. That’s the conclusion of a new study by University of Illinois researchers.
Announced in October 2013, this is one of several studies showing that our dining partners may greatly affect our food choices. Choosing fries when you know you’d be better off with a side salad? Look across the table—what did your friend choose?
What the Study Found
For the study, University of Illinois food economist and lead study author Brenna Ellison and colleagues analyzed lunch receipts from a full-service restaurant for a period of three months. In the restaurant, the first group (the control group) received menus with the item and price, only. A second group received menus with calorie counts for meal. A third group had both the calorie counts and a “traffic light” color-coded symbol indicating calorie ranges: green meant the item had 400 calories or less; yellow meant the item had between 401–800 calories; and red meant the item had more than 800 calories.
In addition to analyzing the lunch receipts, Ellison also went under cover to observe at the restaurant, and got information directly from the servers. Results showed:
- Participants in the third group using the color-coding and who were also part of a large party generally made the healthiest food choices, suggesting there was some peer pressure to order lower-calorie items.
- When groups of people ate together and had to state their food choice aloud, they tended to select items from the same menu categories.
- People were happier if they were making similar choices to those sitting around them.
- No matter how someone felt about the category originally (red, yellow, or green), even if it was initially a source of unhappiness—such as the items in the salad category—this unhappiness was offset when others ordered within the same category.
Given the findings, Ellison noted, “…it would almost be better to nudge people toward healthier friends than healthier foods.”
Earlier Study Shows Similar Results
There are a couple of takeaways from this study. First—additional clues like the “traffic light” color-coding indicating calorie amounts can help people make healthier choices. Recent research from Texas Christian University, for example, gave 300 people, aged 18 to 30, one of the following three menus:
- without calorie labels,
- with calorie labels,
- with labels showing how many minutes of brisk walking would be required to burn the calories consumed.
The people given the last menus consumed fewer calories than the people in either of the other two groups.
The second takeaway from this study is that our choice of dining partners can have a huge influence on what we eat. In a 2012 study published in the journal PLoS One, Dutch researchers invited 70 pairs of women to dine together in a laboratory set up to look like a restaurant. When they observed these women, they found the following:
- Women mirrored each other, taking bites of food at roughly the same time and mimicking each other’s overall eating behavior.
- This mirroring activity was three times more common at the beginning of the meal than the end. Researchers theorized this may be because the women were trying to make a favorable impression on each other at first.
- The findings showed that people tend to adjust their food intake, up or down, to match that of their eating companions.
Another study published in 2012 indicating similar social influences over our food intakes. In that study, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, people who were considered “people pleasers” were more likely to eat more candy when they wanted to put someone else at ease.
How to Resist When Eating with Friends
There are a number of other studies indicating the same thing—eating with people who make unhealthy choices will push you to do the same, and eating with people who make healthy choices will likely be good for you.
Still, we can’t always choose. There are family occasions, business dinners, and more where we are with people who may be setting a less-than-optimal example. What do we do then?
Here are some ideas. Try them out and see if you can hold true to your dieting ideals next time you’re faced with friends choosing high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt options:
- Order first. This way, you won’t have a chance to be influenced by what others are getting.
- Don’t ask. Refrain from asking what your friends or loved ones are having. Make your best choice on your own, and stick to it.
- Choose when to splurge. If you go out with the same group of friends on a regular basis, choose one time to splurge and enjoy something similar to what your pals are ordering, and make healthy choices for the rest of the month.
- Bring at least one healthy friend. Bring along your fit friend when you can, as it’s always easier to stick to your guns when you have a friend along with you.
- Remind yourself of your priorities. If you know your friends are going to be making choices that don’t fit with your goals, remind yourself beforehand, and rehearse how you’re going to deal with it at the restaurant.
- Choose the restaurant. If you can make a choice of a restaurant that has healthy choices you like, you’ll be less likely to cave in and choose other, less healthy items.
- Invite people over. One of the best ways to avoid unhealthy eating with friends is to invite them over and cook. That way, the choices are yours!
Do you have tips for early morning activities that promote success? Please share.
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Debra Levey Larson, “Peer pressure can influence food choices at restaurants,” University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Press Release, October 25, 2013, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-10/uoic-ppc102513.php.
Preidt, Robert. “Eat Less if You Know Time Needed to Burn Calories?” 23 April 2013. WebMD. 26 April 2013. http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20130423/knowing-time-needed-to-walk-off-calories-may-curb-appetite.
Amanda Gardner, “Are Your Friends Making You Overeat?” CNN, February 1, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/01/health/friends-making-you-overeat/.