in Healthy Eating

8 min read

If you think your surrounding doesn’t influence what and how much you eat, then I have bad news for you. The food choices you make are strongly influenced by your social environment. Let’s see how.

The main points are summarized at the end of the post, as always.

In the past few decades, eating out has been on the rise. This brings one major ramification to the table (pun not intended). We’re eating ever more in a social context. This context of our friends, colleagues, co workers etc. strongly shape what we eventually end up ordering and how much of the food on our plate we even eat. Statistically speaking, it’s more likely your friends, colleagues, and coworkers will be overweight or obese – now this poses the question. Do we order a different kind of food when we’re in the company of overweight/obese people, and do we eat a different amount of food in that same situation?


Social influence?

To answer that question, we must first understand the concept of social influence.  Our eating habits in a social context are influenced by the people we are eating with in any given moment [1]. Moreover, we are even sensitive to the behavior of other people when we are out shopping for food, they can be complete strangers and not have any interaction with us, we will still be influenced by their physical presence, at least when it comes to picking out food from a shop. [2]

This stems out of two different tendencies we have as a species:

  • We want to leave a positive impression, convey the best possible impression of ourselves.
  • We want to adhere to the mostly unwritten social rules of our society, known as social norms.

In general, we either don’t want to stand out of a crowd, or we just want to present ourselves in the best possible way to other people. But there’s always exceptions to this rule, this holds true for the majority of people.

To further this line of thought. When we are in a new social setting, say, a party, we will eat around the same amount as the first person to eat. If this amount is a little more than we are used to, we will eat less than him. If the amount is higher, we will eat a little less than him. [3]

We do this to conform to the unwritten rules of this new group, which is set up by the first person to do it. Furthermore, that study noted that this effect became increasingly observed as group size increased. Such unwritten social rules are present in any social situation where you may find yourself in, not just when it comes to eating. With that said, in certain situations they can be stronger than in others.

Some everyday examples are photobombing photos on purpose, skipping the line, and I don’t know, there’s a ton of them, you get the gist of it.


What about our social context?

We can become prepped to a certain social context, if someone were to show you a picture of an overweight person, and would let you eat food afterwards, you’d eat more [4]. Moreover, you have a better chance of becoming obese if people from your immediate social group (friends, siblings, spouses etc.) are obese [5].

While these studies ignore the food choices people make, consuming more food than we need in general will eventually lead to obesity, which is well depicted in this short video as well.

We have a tendency to emulate the behavior of those around us, if that means those around eat in an unhealthy way, we are much more likely to do so as well [5]. Furthermore, when you’re in a group setting, it’s more likely that you will be influenced by the people around you who form a group which you would like to be a part of. Or a group which you find more with. And what is fascinating, this translates to food as well.

Men were less likely to order a steak because it was called a “ladies cut” in comparison to a steak of the same size which was called a “chef’s cut” [6]. The name had an influence because in the first setting, it was implied that the particular cut of steak was meant for women, a group with which they couldn’t identify. While the latter was the chef’s preferred cut, a cut meant for men.

An outgroup is a social group with which you cannot relate. A strong example are homophobes as a social group who cannot relate to homosexuals as a social group.

This same effect was also observed in an interesting study where they told students that a certain outgroup was the biggest consumer of a certain junk food. These students consumed less junk food afterwards, they did not want to identify with this group, in fact, it even discouraged them from eating that particular junk food. [7]

Moreover, if someone in front of us is obese and our self esteem about our appearance is low, we’re more likely to order something smaller. People who have a high self esteem about their appearance are less affected by the social presence of anther person when it comes to ordering food. [8]


Some nice graphs to show you that I’m right

In one experiment, the participants were told that they would watch a movie, and their experience would be assessed. That was a lie. The real study was observing the influence of another person on how much food they took and ate.

Before watching the movie, they lead another person who was involved as an actor (let’s call her X) in the room. X had to take a huge amount of either M&Ms or granola snacks. These choices were supposed to represent a healthy and an unhealthy option. The “healthiness” of granola bars can be discussed though.

X took about 71 grams of granola or 108 grams of M&Ms and took it to a room where she watched a movie afterwards. The participants had to do the same afterwards, take either granola or M&Ms, and go watch the movie in a predesignated room alone. They weren’t being supervised as they were doing this. This was to avoid any possible effect the experimenters could have on them.

This study had two conditions:

  • In the first, X had a normal weight
  • In the second, X received a high quality prosthetic which made her look obese

The graph below shows how much of either snacks people decided to take:


You can see the amount in grams that people ate in a particular condition. They decided to take more snack food in both cases when X did it before them. It is worth mentioning that all the participants were of a normal weight, this can explain why they took less food when X was considered obese, they couldn’t find as strongly with her.

The control group didn’t have X parade before them and take any amount of food, so they took the on their own.

They also calculated the amount of food people ate. Again, when they took more, so in the case of a thin person, they also ate more. And vice versa.



In another variety, they added another condition – X could either take a small or big amount of food with her. This time, however, X and the participants could choose from seven different bowls of candy to take with them. In the “big amount” condition, X took around 30 candies, the  “small amount”, she took around 2 candies, on average.


Again, we can see the interesting effects this had on people.

They took the most candy when the person was thin, however, they took less candy if the person was thin and took a small amount, the amounts eaten are consistent with this result. [9]



What does this all mean and the take home messages

  • We’re strongly influenced by our friends, by our colleagues, and other people close to us. This especially translates to food.
  • If our friends are fat and have unhealthy eating habits, it’s very likely we will pick up those habits up and become fat ourselves in a social eating context.
  • We are often influenced by the bare presence of other people when it comes to food shopping, let alone if they talk to us. We tend to make more health-conscious choices in such a context.
  • When we are in a new social situation, we will try to emulate and adapt to the unwritten rules of that group, this translates to food as well. If people only eat salads in a particular social situation, it’s very likely we will only eat salads in that situation as well.
  • We also tend to emulate portion sizes in new social situations to a certain extent, the amount we eat will be like that of the first person we saw eat in this new group.
  • If we have a low self esteem about our appearance, we will very probably make more health-conscious choices if we are in the presence of obese people when we order/buy food.
  • We are very likely to try and avoid a typical behavior of a group which we dislike. If someone actively dislikes fat people, he will try to avoid eating junk food if his perception is that they eat a lot of junk food.

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