By Diana Urlichich (Bugle Team)
Eating is a social behavior for human beings. The plans we make often revolve around food consumption: catching up with an old friend over lunch, or inviting close ones to a birthday dinner. Although eating a meal or having coffee can be a pleasant social activity, (and works as a sort of social glue), it could seriously affect the amounts of food we eat, especially when it comes to overeating.
Those who went to boarding school may be familiar with the idea that the kitchen is the main social hub for any type of activity. Friends gather after school and stay there for hours, eating endless quantities of toast, crumpets, and anything else the matron may have left out that day. The longer one stayed in the kitchen, the more they would eat, especially when friends were around. Once you become aware of your eating habits, it becomes apparent that you’ll typically eat more while around friends who eat a lot of food. You’re likely to eat more food around friends who eat lots. However, the opposite is also true. If you find yourself around a friend who eats less, you are more likely to mirror their habits and eat less yourself.
Interestingly, Conger et al (1980) conducted studies looking at the effects of amount of food consumption by a model and the subsequent food consumption by other participants. There were some overweight participants, and some with normal weight. It was found that the model had an effect on the amount of food (crackers) eaten in both overweight and normal weight conditions. If the model ate more food, more food was also consumed by the participants. The overweight female participants ate more crackers when there was no model present, but still less than a female of normal weight when a model who ate very little was present. This, therefore, demonstrated the greatest fluctuation of food consumed in comparison to other conditions. The overweight females ate almost as much with a model who ate a lot, compared to when there was no model present.
Similarly, Goldman, Herman, and Polivy (1991) found that if a model ate less, participants, even those starved for 24 hours, would also eat less, therefore conforming to the model.
This research could be crucial to our understanding of how we can decrease levels of obesity, especially in countries such as the US, Mexico, UK, and many others (OECD 2014). For example, those who are already overweight may find it difficult to eat less if surrounded by peers who are also overweight, therefore it is essential that social groups could get involved in breaking the cycle of overeating together. On the other hand, it can be seen that females who are overweight consume much less with someone who eats less, thus causing negative problems such as binge eating when on their own. Therefore, the solution may not be as simple as it seems. Perhaps instilling healthier eating habits at a younger age could be a more reliable solution.
A study conducted by Birch (1980) on young children of preschool ages found that kids would easily change their food of preference depending on the children they sat at the table with (‘friends’). The younger the child was, the more easily the food preference was influenced. This research could prove to be vital, as it demonstrates that children’s food preferences may not be as set in stone as we think e.g. the stereotypes of kids hating broccoli. If the child is raised with healthy foods, and is used to eating a range of food groups, this would be instilled in them from a young age, especially if their friends did the same. This could mean raising a healthier generation of children, which could also potentially prevent issues of overeating and overconsumption of unhealthy foods in future life.
Overall in the UK, obesity is becoming an increasing problem. Therefore, research into social eating habits is critical in order to prevent the figures from growing even higher. There are certainly various factors which play into the rise of obesity figures. It follows that the more information we have on the causes and roots of obesity, the better equipped professionals may be to combat this epidemic.
Apt13 @ teacherweb.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://teacherweb.com/ON/AlconaGlen/MsJanesMissRoos/apt13.aspx
Birch, L. L. (1980). Effects of Peer Models’ Food choices and Eating Behaviours on Preschoolers’ Food Preferences. Child Development, 51(2), 489–496.
Conger, J. C., Conger, a J., Costanzo, P. R., Wright, K. L., & Matter, J. a. (1980). The effect of social cues on the eating behavior of obese and normal subjects. Journal of Personality, 48(2), 258–71. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7391919
Goldman, S. J., Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (1991). Is the effect of a social model on eating attenuated by hunger? Appetite, 17(2), 129–140. http://doi.org/10.1016/0195-6663(91)90068-4
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2014). OECD: Obesity Update 2014. OECD Health Statistics, (June), 8. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/obesity-update.htm