eating habits and social influence

Are your eating habits contagious and if they are – how can you use them to your advantage?

I think it may be a stretch for many to accept that one can “catch” eating behaviour and that that we may be susceptible to the influences of others without us even knowing.

In “Stop blaming your will power when making food choices”, I explored and referred to some studies that show that sleep deprivation, exercise, stress levels, hunger levels, food marketing and gender influences all play part in our food decision process.

However, social element is absolutely huge.

Have you ever noticed that you made different food choices when around different people or in order to match someone you know?

Studies around this are numerous and here are some incredible statistics that may shock you as much as they surprised me:

32-year long study by Christakis & Fowler from the University of California:

  • Study on 12,067 people concluded that obesity seems to be “spread” through social networks, including friendships, siblings and spouses
  • Our chance of becoming obese increases by 57% if our friend is obese, but if the friendship is mutual, the obesity increases by 171%, particularly for the same-sex friendships.
  • One sibling’s chance of becoming obese increases by 40% if other sibling is obese, also more true for siblings of the same sex.
  • Amongst married couples, when other half becomes obese, the spouse is 37% more likely to become obese, wives even more so, 44%.

Here are some other results of different studies:

  • Cambridge Study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2012 concluded that “unhealthy eating partner may determine the choice and consumption of healthier low energy dense foods” and that people generally eat more and similar foods in the company of friends and relatives than when alone and that matching food intake is driven by the our integration needs and the desire to be socially acceptable.
  • Another study published in Health Psychology 2014 (Robinson, Fleming, Higgs) suggests that exposure to social norm messages which suggests that other people are eating healthily may be more effective than health messages per se.

In other words – “Don’t tell me what I should do, but what others do!”

  • Results of a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2014 concluded that social identity is a portion of our self-identity that is derived from a sense of belonging to a group we identify with and that can influence what we eat and how much.
  • Study has found that when participants knew about either low-calorie or high-calorie food choices made by others – it significantly increased their likelihood of making similar choices.

So, what this suggests is that eating habits of people we identify with may influence our own eating behaviour as conforming to the eating habits of a social group or community can reinforce our sense of identity.

This, I am sure, may not come as a surprise as our need to belong is a fundamental human motivator!

The same study also suggests that we may sometimes make food choices (either good or bad) when we wish to avoid social association with an undesirable group, which is a very interesting twist!

Team based weight loss is on the rise, especially internet based interventions, groups and challenges.

  • A study in 2012, published in The Journal of Obesity (Leahey, Kumar, Weinberg, Wing, 2012) found that online teammate enhances weight loss outcomes and that those groups with higher team environment show better results.

So, it appears that weight loss success can be socially influenced as well.

Those that work with a support of someone else, like a support group or a coach, or a partner or teammate – tend to be more successful than those who work in isolation and one of the explanations of this could be the social transmission of eating habits and food choices.

Being exposed to the information about the eating behaviours of those around you, particularly those “on the same mission as you” or those you identify with – can influence what and how much you eat.

So, if our food choices can be contagious, we can indeed use it to promote healthy behavioural changes and having the support in the process seems to be the key as it provides the social proof needed to help us make better food decisions.

Studies also show that these social mechanisms that influence our food decisions are ongoing, regardless whether we eat alone or are with others and regardless whether we re aware of it or not.

  • One final study I wish to mention is by Dr Susanne Higgs, Ph.D., published in the Appetite journal in 2015 concluded that eating pattern can indeed be “caught” and is more effective when we learn what others eat (not when we are told what we should and should not be eating) as long as we feel a sense of shared identity with those “others” (and not if we dislike them or do not wish to be associated with them).

I have been running weight loss groups and challenges since 2008 (as well as worked with clients on a 1-2-1 basis) and, in my own experience, I find our online support and challenges with a high element of support and motivation invaluable, especially to those who have struggled in the past to reach their wellness goals:

  • Some clients prefer to work on a 1-2-1 basis and many make incredible and continued progress, however, it is a fact that participants of our online challenges perform better than the same amount of 1-2-1 clients do.
  • 1-2-1 clients who join challenges start making faster progress once they join, which is why I encourage all my clients to join online groups… and to truly immerse themselves in the whole experience.
  • The higher the bond between participants, better the engagement and better results too of each individual.
  • Those individuals who show participation and enthusiasm during the challenges are likely to do well themselves as by “inspiring others” – they feel inspired themselves. They are also likely to continue making progress, one challenge at a time.
  • Those individuals that prefer to stay back and participate less (or not at all) usually make less progress, which make them quit midway or not join the next challenge – unless they are highly motivated and already live in a supportive environment or have some support element in their environment.

So, if you are sat reading this and thinking about your own environment and realising that you need more positive influence in order to change your health habits – this was written with you in mind!

I often wondered what makes some people do well and reach their goals, whilst some continue to struggle even when we eliminate all the physical impediments and balance their blood sugar levels, increase exercise and sleep, eliminate hunger, etc. Of course, mindset and their own belief system plays a huge part and that is where community is able to help.

We are social beings and I have seen with my own eyes many thriving in the right group environment whilst they simply struggled to make progress on their own. And, more they are involved, more they are motivated and better results follow.

Here are some tips on how to use this research to your own benefit:

  • You can not change your family or friends and you should not, however, if you do not have a positive influence around you when it comes to healthy eating habits, those that you look up to and can ask for support – then you need to find a tribe of people, a community, that will help you in that respect, people on the same mission as you.
  • Working with a coach or a group (or both) will increase your chances three fold, so, trying to do the whole thing on your own without the necessary health knowledge and without support & encouragement is not going to work – your environment is going to win each time! So, keep seeking for associations with people who are already walking the walk you wish to walk. And perhaps talk the talk one day too!
  • Follow people you look up to who already have eating habits and behaviours you want to identify with and adopt some of their habits. Do not shy away from connecting with them and asking them for advice or help. People love to help. Sometimes, when we are stuck, we can not see the whole staircase and that is OK, we just need to be pointed in the direction of the next step. Sometimes it can be just asking a health conscious friend to go for a run with you or help you shop.
  • Have patience, Rome was not built in one day, so it may take time to find what works for you. But, you must make your priority surrounding yourself with people who support your healthy, active lifestyle.
  • Work on yourself and your health knowledge as well as your mindset. Involve your family and friends too. Try to cook a healthy meal together. Or go outdoors more and stay active together. Of course, you will need a proper plan to keep with it, however, starting no mater how small is exciting.

Just imagine the effect YOU could have on other people’s eating patterns and behaviours?

I hope this was helpful and, if you would like to reach out, please do, I would love to hear from you. It could be a simple question you may have that I would be more than happy to find answer for you and here is also what I can offer you to explore to help you get started:

Until next time, yours in health,


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