Dinner with friends: why we overeat in the company

It often happens that after a meal with friends and relatives, we feel that we have eaten too much. Eating alone is very different from spending many hours in a restaurant, when we cannot keep track of what exactly and how much we eat. And sometimes it’s the other way around: we want to order some pudding for dessert, but we don’t because none of our friends order sweets.

Perhaps you will blame society and think that friends eat too much or too little, thereby influencing you. However, several decades of research show that it’s not about friends, but about the process of eating in the company. So, how exactly does this affect food intake and can we do something to avoid overeating?

A series of studies by psychologist John de Castro in the 1980s may shed some light on this gluttonous phenomenon. By 1994, de Castro had collected food diaries from more than 500 people, who recorded everything they ate, including eating conditions – in company or alone.

To his surprise, people ate more in groups than alone. Experiments by other scientists have also shown that in the company people ate 40% more ice cream and 10% more pasta. De Castro called this phenomenon “social facilitation” and described it as the most important yet identified influence on the eating process.

Hunger, mood, or distracting social interactions have been discounted by de Castro and other scientists. Research has shown that we increase our meal time many times over when we eat with friends, which means we eat more. And much more.

Observation in cafes and restaurants showed that the more people in the company, the longer the process of eating will last. But when meal times are fixed (for example, friends meet during lunch break), these same large groups do not eat more than smaller groups. In a 2006 experiment, scientists took 132 people and gave them 12 or 36 minutes to eat cookies and pizza. Participants ate alone, in pairs, or in groups of 4. During each particular meal, the participants ate the same amount of food. This experiment provided some of the strongest evidence that longer meal times are a reason for overeating in company.

When we dine with our favorite friends, we may linger and therefore order another slice of cheesecake or a scoop of ice cream. And while waiting for the ordered food to be prepared, we can still order something. Especially if before meeting with friends we had not eaten for a long time and came to the restaurant very hungry. Also, we usually order different dishes and are not averse to trying a friend’s delicious bruschetta or finishing his dessert. And if alcohol accompanies the meal, it is even harder for us to recognize satiety, and we no longer control the process of eating too much.

Scientist Peter Herman, who studies food and eating habits, proposed his hypothesis: indulgence is an integral part of group meals, and we can eat more without feeling guilty about excesses. That is we are more comfortable with overeating if friends do the same.

Have you noticed that there are a lot of mirrors in the halls of some restaurants? And often these mirrors are hung right in front of the tables so that the client can see himself. It’s not just done. In one Japanese study, people were asked to eat popcorn alone or in front of a mirror. It turned out that those who ate in front of the mirror enjoyed popcorn for much longer. This leads to the conclusion that mirrors in restaurants also contribute to an increase in meal times.

But sometimes we, on the contrary, eat less in the company than we would like. Our desire to indulge in dessert is blunted by social norms. For example, friends did not want to order dessert. Probably, in this case, all members of the company will refuse dessert.

Studies have shown that obese children ate less in groups than alone. Overweight young people ate more crackers, candy, and cookies when they ate with overweight youth, but not when they ate with normal-weight people. In university cafes women ate fewer calories when men were at their table, but ate more with women. And in the US, diners ordered more desserts if their waiters were overweight. All of these results are examples of social modeling.

Our food is influenced not only by the company, but also by the place in which we eat. In the UK, diners began to eat more vegetables at lunch after restaurants put up posters saying that most customers choose vegetables. And scattered sweets and candy wrappers from them were a powerful incentive for people to take more sweets with them.

One 2014 study found that women tend to have stronger reactions to men, and they tend to follow recommendations from people who are more like them. That is, the recommendations of women. And feminine behavior.

With the reasons for overeating in the company, everything is clear. Another question: how to avoid it?

Susan Higgs, professor of food psychology at the University of Birmingham, says.

Nowadays, unfortunately, chips and sweet snacks are so affordable that nutritional norms are not followed by most people. And people tend to eat the way their loved ones do, and they are less concerned about overeating problems if their social circle eats excessively and is overweight. In such circles, we fail to recognize the problem and it becomes the norm.

Luckily, healthy eating doesn’t require giving up on your friends, even if they’re fatter than us. But we must recognize that our eating habits are largely determined by social influences. Then we can understand how to act while eating in the company of friends and how to control the process.

1. Don’t show up to a meeting with a rumbling stomach. Eat a light snack an hour before the planned meal or a full meal a couple of hours before. You must realize that feeling hungry, especially for a long time, provokes overeating.

2. Drink a glass of water just before entering a restaurant.

3. Study the menu carefully. Don’t rush to order something quickly because your friends have already ordered. Familiarize yourself with the dishes, decide what you want and what your body requires.

4. Don’t order everything at once. Stop for an appetizer and a hot meal. If the portions are too small, then you can order something else, but if you already feel full, it is better to stop.

5. If you are ordering a larger dish for everyone, such as pizza, decide in advance how much you will eat. Do not reach for the next piece that is on the plate, because it needs to be finished.

6. Focus on communication, not chewing. A catering establishment is just a meeting place, not a reason for meeting. You came here for fellowship, not for overeating.

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