Are Your Friends Making You Overeat?

February 1, 2012


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By Amanda Gardner

WEDNESDAY, February 1, 2012 ( — People sitting at the table with us have a subtle yet powerful influence on our eating habits that in some cases may lead us to overeat, especially if we’re trying to be agreeable or make a good impression, new research suggests.

In a study published today in the journal PLoS One, Dutch researchers invited 70 pairs of women to dine together in a lab set up to look like a restaurant. The women, they found, tended to take bites of food at roughly the same time and mimic each other’s overall eating behavior.

This mirroring was three times more common at the beginning of the meal than at the end, however, which suggests that the women, who were strangers, may have been trying to make a favorable impression on each other.

Researchers say the findings help explain previous studies showing that people tend to adjust their food intake—up or down—to match that of their eating companions, and tend to eat more with others than when dining alone.

“This demonstrates the power of social influence over food intake,” says lead author Roel Hermans, a doctoral candidate in developmental psychopathology at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.

“It’s important that people become aware of these factors,” Hermans adds. “As long as such important influences on intake are not wholeheartedly acknowledged, it will be difficult to make healthy food choices and maintain a healthy diet, especially in eating contexts in which people are often exposed to the eating behavior of others.”

Although Hermans and his colleagues can’t say for sure that the study participants were matching bites in order to win each other over, past research suggests that people use this type of mimicry when they’re trying to get other people to like them. This may actually be a sensible strategy, since at least one study has found that people aren’t as well-liked by their dining partners if they eat conspicuously small amounts of food.

A second study published today provides more evidence for the idea that some people eat to create a good impression or to make another person feel comfortable.

Next page: “People-pleasers” give in to food pressure

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