As the holiday season approaches, food will be taking center stage and social eating occasions will become more numerous. The findings of a new study are a good reminder that we may eat more than we intend to when surrounded by friends and family. They also offer some ideas about why we do.
Researchers analyzed 42 studies of social eating. Our tendency to overeat in the company of friends and family could be a throwback to our early ancestors. Ancient hunter-gatherers shared food to protect against times when food was scarce, according to the researchers. They believe this survival mechanism exists today and causes us to eat more in a social setting.
Most of us are no longer hunter-gatherers. We share a common food resource. However, mechanisms similar to those used by hunter-gatherers may continue to guide how we eat, the researchers say. Something that once ensured everyone had enough to eat may still exert influence on unhealthy dietary intakes.
Hold a low-calorie beverage with one hand so it’s not as easy to keep filling your plate. Go easy on the sweets.
“What we describe as ‘social facilitation’ can be seen as a natural by-product of social food sharing — a strategy that would have served a critical function in our ancestral environments. This also explains why it is more likely to occur in groups with individuals who are familiar with each other,” said researcher, Helen Ruddock, from the University of Birmingham.
Something more immediate than survival concerns may be at work. Eating with other people is enjoyable and makes us more likely to overeat. It may also cause us to be less mindful of how much we are eating. Or perhaps our social norms encourage us to see overeating with company as more permissible. Add in that providing food is associated with compliments from friends and family, which strengthens social bonds and increases the amount of food we eat, and you can see why we are so likely to overeat with others.
Whatever the reason for increased eating in the company of family and friends, it is something to be aware of and something we can prepare for when attending social functions.
Going to a social occasion with a strategy for eating less can help prevent overeating. Hold a low-calorie beverage with one hand so it’s not as easy to keep filling your plate. Fill up on fruits, vegetables and lean meats. Monitor your portion sizes, especially if there are many dishes to choose from. Go easy on the sweets. Eat slowly and mindfully. Perhaps the best strategy is to remember to talk more than you eat.