Social Norms Influence Food Choices and Weight, Study Finds

Friends are supposed to great for the whole weight-loss thing — running buddies, yoga buddies, juice cleanse-psycho buddies. But a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Monday says that friends can also make us gain weight. Yes, turns out our eating habits often come from our need to fit in with social norms. (Shocking, we know.)

We all have that one friend who, after a sweat sesh, will be all, "Hey, let's grab Starbucks," and then the next thing you know, you're sucking down a 400-calorie iced mocha-delicious-whatever. It's a partners-in-crime situation, say the researchers, who did a meta-analysis of 15 different studies to figure out how eating with others impacts food choices.

Eight of the studies dealt with information about how much food people eat, and seven dealt with what kind of food people ate. Researchers found that people basically tailor their food choices to what other people eat. In other words, people match both quantity and quality of their food choices to what their dining companions choose.

“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 Eric Robinson, lead investigator on the study and a psychologist at the University of Liverpool. “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 hypothesized to eat healthily in order to maintain a consistent sense of social identity.”

Think of the Mediterranean diet, one of the healthiest in the world: a huge component of that diet is eating communal meals high in omegas, drinking red wine, and getting into jovial yet passionate arguments while gesticulating wildly. Friends who eat healthy keep each other healthy, and that's what friendship is all about, or something. (It's definitely not about this.)

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