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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Food for thought: Are your friends influencing your eating habits?


We have all heard of the term social smoking, but social eating? Is that really a thing?

Experts claim that what we eat and how much of it can be affected by who we are with, where we are and how we feel.

Just think of the last time you were at your grandmother’s house and how difficult it was to honour your satiety cues as you look at her adorable face pile your seventh serving of her famous lasagna on to your plate.

Read also: The Mum Diaries: Dietician shares health tips for ‘mums on the run’

Social eating is defined as the consumption of calories in a social setting regardless of intention to eat. To most people, and specifically in the Arab region, eating is a social activity. Birthdays are celebrated with food, graduations, weddings, promotions- almost everything really- and most often these include cake or ice cream (or, a personal favourite, ice cream cake!).

These instances need not be celebrations, we also eat when we are sad, anxious, angry, or stressed. Didn’t get that promotion? Let’s order a pizza to make you feel better. You’re stressed out of your mind studying for an exam? Those BBQ flavoured crisps are calling your name. 

Social eating and eating habits

Our eating behaviour is strongly influenced by who we eat with and the dietary choices we make tend to converge with those that are closest to us.

Psychologically, we find it rewarding to conform to the behaviour of others, and so norms of appropriate eating are set by observing the eating choices and patterns of those we identify with.

In fact, there is emerging new evidence that social eating norms play a substantial role in the onset of obesity and its maintenance. However, this can work both ways. If you surround yourself with friends who have healthy eating habits- you are more likely to conform to their behaviours and develop the motivation you need to lose weight. Choose your friends wisely!

Social eating and general well being

Studies have shown that children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week are 40% more likely to be overweight than children who do.

Alternatively, those who eat dinner with their parents more than 4 times a week are more likely to eat healthier, perform better at school and report being closer to their parents than those who don’t.

This has been narrowed down to two main reasons.

Firstly, when eating with the family, we are more likely to eat healthier home-cooked meals as opposed to the inexpensive fast food and take-out places that are more than often the go-to for the younger generation.

The second reason is the simple fact that eating alone can be alienating. Sharing a meal is usually a good time to talk, catch up and exchange experiences, and the dinner table is most often seen as a place of community.

Read also: Dietician Fatma Ben Brahim on keeping healthy at home under lockdown

In many cultures, dinner or meal time is deemed sacred.

In France for example, it is considered unacceptable to rush a meal, even if one is eating alone. In Mexico, townspeople often eat together with friends and family members in central, public areas such as parks or town square.

Alice Julier argues in her book titled “Eating together” that social dining can shift people’s perspectives by reducing their perceptions of inequality.

How it affects us

In the Middle East, you are considered a better host the more food you serve, regardless of hunger.

Feeding is seen as a sign of politeness, love and care. According to a “do’s and don’ts when visiting the Middle East” brochure, it is considered rude to refuse food if offered to you twice, which in many cases, guarantees you a second (and third and fourth) portion – if you don’t want to be rude that is.

Read also: Majority of adults and youngsters in the region are unhealthy warns research

Although we are blessed that the Mediterranean diet is regarded as one of the healthiest in the world, in the end, regardless of what you eat, too much of a good thing is still a bad thing.

Therefore, since our culture prides itself on hospitality and social eating is extremely common, it’s paramount to provide healthier options, and not demand of our guests to consume past their gastric capacity. In the end, they still love you even if they don’t want a third serving of your machboos

What we can do about it

Social norms can be used to promote healthy behaviours and there is growing evidence that they can also be a contributing factor to weight loss attempts. Here are a few tips you can use to avoid falling off the bandwagon:

  1. Surround yourself with friends that eat right and eat well.
  2. Make a conscious effort to better educate yourself on nutrition so as to make better informed choices. 
  3.  Don’t be afraid to refuse a second helping.
  4. Don’t worry about being rude if you don’t want to participate in social eating in the case that options available to you are unhealthy – even if that means missing out on your friend’s red velvet and cream cheese birthday cake. 
  5. Prepare yourself and manage your expectations before an outing. If you know that there will only be unhealthy options, eat before you go out and have a small portion (or resist the temptation all together) when you’re there.
  6. Take your time when making food decisions. Scan the options carefully and choose the ones that contain more vegetables or whole grains.
  7. Treat yourself every once in a while, and plan your treats. When they are scheduled ahead of time, you’ll feel less guilty.
  8. Don’t give up when you’ve failed. Get right back on track and try again for the next meal (not next Sunday).

Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH]

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