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Why Your Friends' Food Choices Are Making You Fat

Friends and food

Choosing who you socialize with just got a bit more complicated as new research published December 30, 2013 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that your food choices and portion sizes are significantly influenced by the food choices of your peers.

Eating and socializing are as synonymous as popcorn and the movies. Holiday gatherings are filled with favorites like pumpkin pie, turkey, honey-baked ham and egg nog; while social gatherings indulge guests with endless sugary beverages, candies, finger foods and mouthwatering deserts. We enjoy food and drink — sometimes at the expense of our health — all in the name of socializing.

Unfortunately, all this socializing and overindulging in food leads to extra weight and enlarged waistlines - particularly if you are socializing with others who like to indulge in large portions and high-calorie foods.

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Drs. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, authors of Connected, even go as far as to say that having a mutual friend who is obese triples your risk of being overweight. In their book, they suggest that our expectations of acceptable weights and body sizes are significantly influenced by the size and eating patterns of our friends. As our expectations are reset based on those we associate with, we can either lose or gain weight.

As part of the recent study, U.K. researchers reviewed 15 studies examining how social norms influence food consumption and choices. What the researchers discovered was that people’s food choices were significantly influenced — positively or negatively — by the choices of others and social norms.

The study authors found that if people knew that others were choosing high-calorie foods, they were significantly more likely to make similar choices. The opposite was also true, with people choosing low-calorie foods if others did the same.

Additionally, if others consumed large portions people were more likely to follow the crowd and eat bigger portions. Surprisingly, the researchers concluded that our eating behaviors continue to be influenced by social norms even when we eat alone or at work.

The findings of the systematic review indicate there is a strong association between social norms and eating behaviors and suggest that these behaviors can be “contagious,” transferring from peer to peer.