How Your Friends Influence Your Diet

You might want to put as much thought into your dining partners as you do your training partners, given what new research reveals about how individuals’ food choices are affected by peer groups.

Writing in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, British researchers say that social norms – what’s done by the people we most associate ourselves with – can strongly influence the type and amount of food we eat. In other words, if your friends and family think that a big bag of chips makes a meal, you’re less likely to regularly eat moderate portions of more healthful food.

The researchers reviewed 15 earlier studies from 11 publications. Eight of the studies looked at whether we’re influenced by the amount of food others eat, while seven of the studies looked at whether we’re influenced by the type of food others eat. The researchers found consistent evidence that both aspects of diet are consistently influenced by perceived social norms.

“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 lead researcher Eric Robinson, Ph.D., of the University of Liverpool, UK. “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 hypothesised to eat healthily in order to maintain a consistent sense of social identity.”

The researchers said that the findings appear to be true even when people eat alone. That is, 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.

This last point is especially worth keeping in mind because the researchers found that individuals can make conforming food choices without thinking they’re doing so.

“Given that in some studies the participants did not believe that their behaviour was influenced by the informational eating norms, it seems that participants may not have been consciously considering the norm information when making food choices,” Robinson said.

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