Food and Friends

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How do friends affect weight loss or weight gain? This question has received considerable attention for at least a couple of years, since a study demonstrated that people tend to gain more weight when their friends do, as well. The widely accepted conclusion of that study is that having overweight friends changes what people see as acceptable, leading them to care less about staying thin themselves. Although the study dealt with a social phenomenon, the health ramifications of accepting weight gain — such as a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, or diminished cardiovascular health — are obvious.

Two new studies address the question of social influence from another angle, focusing on eating habits rather than on weight gain. The first, a study of children published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reaches a conclusion consistent with expectations based on the earlier study: Overweight children eat more when they are eating with overweight friends. According to a article, overweight study participants — who were between the ages of 9 and 15 — consumed an average of 300 more calories during a meal when paired with an overweight friend than when paired with a thin one. But it wasn’t just being with an overweight companion that caused the overweight children to eat more. They ate an average of 250 more calories with overweight friends than with overweight children they had just met.

Caution when eating with strangers may help explain the results of the other new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research. According to an article in The New York Times, women participating in a decoy experiment — which involved eating M&Ms while watching a video — who were accompanied by a thin woman (seemingly another participant in the experiment) took far fewer M&Ms than participants who were accompanied by the same thin woman wearing a “fat suit,” which made her appear to be obese.

There are several problems with comparing the two studies, of course — both the subjects and the situations were very different, and one dealt with meals while the other dealt with candy. But if a comparison cannot give definite answers, it can certainly lead to questions, such as whether being overweight seems more acceptable in friends than in strangers — or whether our eating habits vary so much in controlled conditions that no such experiment can draw accurate conclusions about our everyday eating tendencies.

What do you think — has the size of your friends, or have their eating habits, affected yours? Do you eat differently with strangers than with people you know well? Since having overweight friends may make people more accepting of their own weight gain, should everyone make an effort to have at least some thin friends? Leave a comment below!

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