Saturday 20 April 2019

Don't blame yourself for failing to lose that weight - because it's all your friends' fault

'For women in particular, food is linked to emotions. Women eat when they are happy, sad, stressed, worried . . . not just when they are hungry. Women bond over food'. Stock photo: Getty
'For women in particular, food is linked to emotions. Women eat when they are happy, sad, stressed, worried . . . not just when they are hungry. Women bond over food'. Stock photo: Getty
Sinead Moriarty

Sinead Moriarty

Losing weight can often feel like an uphill struggle as you battle with calories, portion sizes and a rumbling stomach - but research is now showing that your friends can also be a big part of the problem.

For women in particular, food is linked to emotions. Women eat when they are happy, sad, stressed, worried . . . not just when they are hungry. Women bond over food. Dinners out are when the world is put to rights. Late-night conversations around chocolate cake are when women open up to friends and share their woes to sympathetic ears.

So when everyone else at the table orders dessert, it's hard to be the only one who says no. You want to fit in and not stick out as the 'boring one' or the 'control freak'.

Women don't want to be perceived as difficult or be the odd one out so they'll eat the chocolate cake just to fit in and not have comments flying their way.

Social norms are now being described as the most powerful form of social control over human behaviour. In fact, behaviour - both unhealthy and healthy - has been deemed contagious.

US scientists from Southern Illinois and Cornell universities hired a professional actress to wear a 'fat suit' to take part in their study. The actress was then asked to serve herself a portion of food in front of a group of study participants. Researchers then encouraged the participants to serve themselves food - the choice was pasta or salad.

When the actress was wearing the 'fat suit' and chose pasta, the other participants ate 31.6pc more pasta. When she was her normal slim self, they were more inclined to choose the salad. The scientists concluded that people forget about their health goals when they are around overweight people.

If you are sitting with someone who eats more, you'll eat more too. It's often done unconsciously. It's like eating with someone who eats quickly, you immediately speed up, without meaning to. It's the subconscious nature of mirroring behaviour.

We also eat more in bigger groups. One survey showed that people who eat with seven or more friends consumed a whopping 96pc more than if they ate alone.

"Food is about fitting in," explains psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, author of 'Whose Life is it Anyway?' "Women in their 30s and 40s don't want to be seen as too different from the group. They don't want to be the one to order the salad, so they look left and they look right and then they order."

In a survey of more than 15,000 people in 12 countries by the public relations agency Edelman, 43pc of survey respondents said that friends and family have the most impact on personal health lifestyle, with 36pc reporting that close social ties have the most impact on personal nutrition. About two thirds said they tried to change a negative health behaviour, but half of them failed because of lack of on-going social support.

Another survey showed that a person's chances of becoming obese increased by 57pc if he or she had a friend who had become obese.

The finding showed that your friend's weight affects you more than your spouse. If one spouse became obese, the likelihood that the other spouse would become obese increased by 37pc.

Among adult siblings, if one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased by 40pc.

However, friends of different sexes don't seem to affect each other's weight gain at all. A male friend's weight gain will not affect his female friend's weight at all and vice-versa. This is because when it comes to body image we compare ourselves primarily to people of the same sex.

When it comes to drinking, friends influence you greatly too. Any non-drinker living in Ireland knows the pressure of going out on a Saturday night. You will be tormented with offers of drink. It's the same with food. Men are the worst offenders. A UK study showed that 39pc of men will try to ruin their friends' diets by tempting them out for dinner or drinks, compared with 'only' 20pc of women.

The problem is that a positive change in behaviour for one member of the group can serve to highlight the extravagant behaviour of the rest.

But we need to be healthier. The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that in 2030, the proportion of obese and overweight men in Ireland is projected to rise to 89pc with a corresponding 85pc of women falling into this category.

How do we manage our eating habits and avoid being unduly influenced by those around us?

It's very important to pre-commit to meal choices before entering the restaurant, advises Mitsuru Shimizu, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

"If you go into the restaurant knowing what you will order, you're less likely to be negatively influenced by all of the things that nudge you to eat more."

Irish Independent

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