Eating Mindfully

Improve your relationship with food

Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Plate

How social cues can affect our eating

While visiting Boston for a recent symposium on food addiction, I stayed overnight at a quaint bed and breakfast that offered homemade snacks in the evening. After checking in, my colleague and I ventured down to see what they were offering. I mindfully looked at the cookies on display. After seeing the cookies and checking in with myself in terms of my hunger/fullness, I decided I was not hungry and the cookies were not appealing to me. I came to the decision that I did not want any cookies and decided not to eat any. As my colleague took a cookie, another guest who had helped herself to some cookies said conspiringly to her—“your friend is still being good, but she’ll crack tomorrow and have some cookies. You are on vacation after all.” I smiled in politeness but wondered about the true meaning of her comment. What had she inferred about me based on my food choice?

Her comment seemed to imply that I truly wanted the cookie but was restraining myself from eating it. Perhaps she thought I was on a diet? Or that I had good willpower? Was I someone who frequently deprived myself? Or perhaps I wasn’t really “letting loose” and having enough fun on my vacation? I found myself feeling strangely defensive about my food choice.  

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Many people feel anxious about the ways in which others may judge their food choices. Whether you worry about sounding like Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally (“I'd like the chef salad, please, with the oil and vinegar on the side. And the apple pie a la mode....But I'd like the pie heated, and I don't want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side. And I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it's real…”) or that the waiter will wonder when the rest of your family is going to arrive to eat all of the food that you ordered, social cues and feelings of judgment influence our food choices and eating behaviors.

There have been a number of research studies that show that people tend to eat more when they dine with others. A number of factors are involved in this phenomenon. For example, a study by Clendenen, Herman, and Polivy (1994) found that the relationships among dining companions influences how much you eat. They found that participants in their research study who dined with friends were more likely to eat dessert than participants who dined with strangers. Keep that in mind the next time a friend offers to share the triple chocolate fudge surprise. A recent article by Exline et al. (2012) found that “people pleasers” tend to eat more in social situations when they feel pressure from their dining companion to eat. This pressure is often subtle. In the study an actor offered the research participant some candy and said “would you like some? Otherwise I’ll just end up eating them all by myself.” This was enough to induce overeating in the “people pleasing” participants. This type of implicit pressure is common in dining experiences—just think of the last time you were out to dinner with a friend who eyed the menu and said “yum, this sounds decadent—do you want to share?”

Social cues that influence our eating behaviors are usually subtle and often outside our conscious awareness. When you eat mindlessly, you are more prone to giving in to these pressures. While we are innately social creatures, it is important to maintain a connection between your mind and body while dining with others. Becoming aware of your hunger and fullness (try using a hunger/fullness awareness scale) and practicing mindful eating are two ways to eat in response to your body rather than your friends. Next time your friend suggests you share the double nacho supreme appetizer, take a moment to check in with yourself rather than automatically answering. Make a conscious decision if this is something that you want to eat or are you caving into social influence. Just because your friend finishes (or doesn’t finish) her entrée doesn’t mean you need to do the same. Keep your eyes on your own food! 

Alexis Conason, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in practice in New York City and a researcher at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital.

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