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For Weight Loss Choose Your Dining Partner Carefully

Women and Behavioral Mimicry

Ladies, if your goal is weight loss, in addition to paying attention to calorie intake, you may also want to take a look at your dining companion. A new study from Radboud University finds that women tend to mimic the patterns of whom they are eating with – and those who dine with a healthy eater will be more likely to eat healthier herself.

Women tend to eat more when they are dining with others who eat more. If their partner eats more healthfully, women will copy this pattern as well. This is called behavioral mimicry by psychologists. Although this phenomenon has been noted observationally, it has never been formally studied before until now.

Roel Hermans PhD and colleagues assessed 70 pairs of young women, mean age 21 all with BMI of between 20 and 25 (normal weight), who had dinner together in a lab setting set up to look like a real bar. The women did not know each other before the beginning of the study.

One of the women was privately told to eat in one of six particular patterns, such as a small amount of food from a large portion or a large amount from a small portion. The other woman in the pair was not given any instruction on how to eat. The 20-minute meal consisted of pasta or a common Dutch meal of potatoes mashed with vegetables called “mash pot.”

The team noted that during the meals, when one woman is putting food in her mouth, the other is more likely to do the same within five seconds. However, the person who was not instructed on how to eat often took more bites. The controls would take about 30 bites while the experimental subject took about 41. Mimicry was strongest at the beginning of the meal.

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The scientists concluded that the findings "fall within the typical definition of behavioral mimicry" -- watching a dining companion take a bite might activate the motor system to make the same move. On the other hand, the women may have been actively monitoring each others' eating habits to maintain a similar eating pattern, in an effort to ensure they ate an "appropriate" amount.

"If we want to be liked, we imitate more, without being aware of it," said Dr. Hermans. "In our study, two previously unknown women were interacting with each other, and it is possible that their motive to get along with each other, or their motivation to be liked, might have increased their likelihood of mimicry."

The researchers now want to study other populations such as men and children/adolescents, to see if the same effect takes place. Dr. Hermans would also like to study people dining together who know each other well. "People should be more motivated to convey a good impression during their initial interactions with a stranger than with someone who they know well," he said.

The findings of this study can be used in our own lives by looking around at what environmental factors influence our eating habits. If you eat out regularly with friends, sit beside one that has the same healthful eating goals as you. Spend time with friends who enjoy physical activities such as walking or hiking to increase exercise time. Also don’t forget to be a role model yourself, for your friends and family. If you begin to eat more healthfully, those around you may begin to mimic you, creating a chain reaction for weight loss and weight management.

Journal Reference:
Roel C. J. Hermans, Anna Lichtwarck-Aschoff, Kirsten E. Bevelander, C. Peter Herman, Junilla K. Larsen, Rutger C. M. E. Engels. Mimicry of Food Intake: The Dynamic Interplay between Eating Companions. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (2): e31027 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031027

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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There used to be a saying, which reads something like this. Tell me who is your friend and I will tell you who you are. Now we can say, tell me who are your friends and I will tell you your weight loss chances.