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The Social Network of Food

Can online support really help you lose weight?

“Man by nature is a social animal;” –Aristotle

A person’s social network, defined as that individual’s social interactions and personal relationships, is arguably essential to maintaining sanity. Prolonged social isolation, such as solitary confinement in prisons, is a punishment tactic because of the psychological effects it can have on an individual. Although a little alone time is probably also essential for many of us, having some interactions on a daily basis is a healthy part of life, mentally and physically.

“An individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” –Aristotle

On the other hand, having a social network doesn’t necessarily mean you have people you can look to for support in a time of need. A support group is an entirely different entity from a social network, specifically being a group of people that provide each other with encouragement, comfort and advice from common experiences.

Even Aristotle knew that humans are social beings, yet research has only just emerged in the past couple of years to assess the impact of social support groups on weight loss and other issues such as depression or drug addiction. As mentioned in my book, Why Diets Fail, addiction research has shown that social ties are just about essential to recovery.1 Understanding the role of social support for weight loss is relatively new, but some research shows that you may not necessarily need a whole group—having at least one person who you can rely on for support may be enough, if not necessary, to keep you on track.

In a study among women participating in a weight-loss program, those who had a social contact that was either previously engaged or currently engaged in a similar program lost more weight and attended more group sessions that those women who had no contact.2 Most of the women reported that having a social contact currently in another weight-loss program was integral to their own participation in a weight-loss program. Similarly, another study investigating weight regain in bariatric surgery patients found that successful post-surgery weight loss and maintenance is associated with having positive emotional and social support throughout.3 In both cases, it is not providing instruction or education that prevails, but rather merely having some form of support seems to be missing variable in cases of failure. Although the research is still sparse, it is probably safe to say it wouldn’t hurt to find someone (a friend, family member, or even a stranger) to help you stay on track with your health and fitness goals.

Unfortunately, more often than not, you may find that not everyone in your life is going to be supportive of your new lifestyle and eating habits. Sometimes you may have difficulty finding a proper support group or network, and in some cases you may need to negotiate for support.

Negotiating for support can be especially important when you are trying to make some dietary/lifestyle changes and you’re having trouble getting your family on board with you. Perhaps you would prefer to not stock the pantry with snacks and sweets, but your family isn’t quite as willing to change their eating habits to fit in with yours. Instead of arguing over making changes, explain your goals, offer suggestions as to what can be done, and ask if anyone is willing to work with you on coming up with solutions as to how they can offer support.

Needless to say, it’s definitely quite a bit easier today to get the support you need in any shape or form. Technology has been a huge help in this area, and www.projecttoe.com

is a good example of how far we have come in the way of accessibility to support groups. You no longer need to rely solely on your family or close group of friends. Just from your phone you can find virtual, confidential support groups for just about anything, or start your own group, and even chat with the members as a group or individually. The creation of communities like Project Toe make it possible that you may never have to worry about finding a support group. As long as you have access to a smartphone or computer, the possibilities are endless.

No matter what your goals are, (lose weight, maintain, just be healthy overall) consider finding someone to actively support you. Offer support and encouragement to others in return. You may even find that being a supportive friend to someone else may be helpful for your own journey too. Although success is certainly possible without a support group, there is only benefit to gain from interacting with others who want to help you succeed.

References:

1. Avena NM, Talbott JR. Why Diets Fail. New York: Ten Speed Press; 2014.

2. Carson TL, Eddings KE, Krukowski RA, Love SJ, Harvey-Berino JR, West DS. Examining social influence on participation and outcomes among a network of behavioral weight-loss intervention enrollees. Journal of Obesity. 2013;2013:480630.

3. Lecaros-Bravo J, Cruzat-Mandich C, Diaz-Castrillon F, Moore-Infante C. Bariatric surgery in adults: variables that facilitate and hinder weight loss from pacients perspective. Nutricion Hospitalaria. 2015;31(4):1504-1512.

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 75 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association. She has two books: Why Diets Fail and What to Eat When You're Pregnant. She also does nutritional consulting for individuals and groups/corporations. You can learn more about her on her website DrNicoleAvena.com

@DrNicoleAvena on Twitter and Facebook

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