Are Friends and Family Making Us Fat?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - A U.K. think tank, the Overseas Development Institute, says that one in three people worldwide are now overweight. Mainly, this increase is seen in the developing world, particularly in countries where incomes are rising, such as Egypt and Mexico. In the U.K. 64 per cent of adults are classed as being overweight or obese. Changes in lifestyle, the increasing availability of processed foods, advertising—have all led to dietary changes. Or is it something else: is obesity a socially transmitted disease?

In order to try to find out, researchers in the U.K. have done a systematic review of several experimental studies, each of which examined whether or not providing information about other peoples’ eating habits influences food intake or choices. Their results are published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The research looked at fifteen studies from eleven publications. Eight of the studies examined how information about food intake norms influenced food consumed by participants. Seven other studies reported the effects of food choice norms on how people decide what food to eat. After examining the data, investigators found consistent evidence that social norms influence food.

Data showed if participants were given information indicating that others were making low-calorie or high-calorie food choices, it significantly increased the likelihood that participants made similar choices. The study found that social norms influence the quantity of food eaten and that there was a strong association between eating, and social identity. Lead investigator Eric Robinson, PhD, of the University of Liverpool explains, “If a person’s sense of self is strongly guided by their identity as a member of their local community and that community is perceived to eat healthily, then that person would be hypothesized to eat healthily in order to maintain a consistent sense of social identity.”

The analysis also revealed that the social mechanisms that influence what we decide to consume are present, even when we eat alone or are at work, whether or not we are aware of it. However, researchers do caution that more research is needed, but that these types of studies can help us understand the way people make decisions about food consumption and can help shape public policy and messaging about healthy choices. The evidence reviewed here is consistent with the idea that eating behaviours can be transmitted socially. These findings could influence the development of more effective public health campaigns to promote ‘healthy eating’ and maybe we need to see who we are hanging out with, if we want to lose weight. 

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