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One Effect Eating With Others Has on Your Diet, Says New Study

If you're trying to eat healthy or lose weight, choose your meal companions wisely.

You go out to lunch with a few colleagues and they order a bunch of greasy, fried gut bombs, but you're trying to make healthy choices. How hard is it to stick to your goals and not get swayed by their eating behaviors? According to a new study, a lot harder than you think.

Research published in Nature Human Behaviour noted that unhealthy food choices are an important driver of obesity, and that who you eat with may be just as important as the foods you pick.

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Researchers looked at data from 3 million encounters where pairs of employees made food purchases together in 2015 and 2016, encompassing about 6,000 people. Because all the food was bought at the cafeteria in Massachusetts General Hospital—which uses a labeling system based on the healthiness of each item—they were able to determine similarities and differences in food purchases for each pair. Data revealed that proportions of unhealthy items purchased were positively associated among employees.

They also looked at how much time elapsed between purchases within a pair, and found that two people who bought food within a few minutes of each other were more likely to buy the same type of food than those who made purchases 30 minutes apart.

The good news is that it isn't only unhealthy choices that might influence your own—if you hang out with people who share your desire to load up on nutritious foods, you're more likely to do that, too.

"We tend to mirror the food choices of others around us, especially if we spend a great deal of time with them," says the study's first author, Douglas Levy, Ph.D., a researcher at the Mongan Institute Health Policy Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. He adds that this may be why obesity tends to spread through social networks as well as within families.

This effect is so pronounced that some researchers have noted that obesity may be "contagious" within social groups. For example, a 2010 study of teens in the journal Social Networks found that friends tend to be very similar in their consumption of high-calorie foods, which may prompt obesity within a circle of friends.

The same is true of adults, according to a 2019 study in BMC Public Health, which noted that healthy eating is also contagious to some degree, and shouldn't be ignored as a major factor for weight loss.

As you transition back to a workplace and have lunch with other people again, it's helpful to keep in mind that peer pressure could be driving some decisions, Levy says, especially if you're looking to re-establish ties in that social circle. For more, check out The Unexpected Way Your Brain May be Causing You to Overeat, Says Research, and don't forget to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest restaurant news delivered straight to your inbox.

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, and nutrition. Read more about Elizabeth
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