Do you overeat when dining with friends or family? This is why – and what you can do about it

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Ever found yourself sticking to a planned diet when you eat alone, but being more relaxed when you dine with friends and family?

Now, according to a new study, the reason for this could be a throwback to our early ancestors’ approach to survival. This is also known as “social facilitation”.

According to a news release, previous studies have shown that those who eat with others eat up to 48% more food than those who dine alone.

For the latest study, experts at the University of Birmingham led a team of British and Australian researchers, who found that eating socially is strongly linked to consuming more food. For this purpose, they evaluated 42 existing studies on the topic.

A quest for survival

The reason for this is because ancient hunter gatherers shared food to protect against periods of food insecurity – and this ancient survival instinct might survive in humans today. The main reasons suspected for "overeating" in social settings are:

  • Eating with others is more enjoyable and can therefore lead to overeating.
  • Social norms make us think that it’s okay to indulge while in the presence of friends and family, but not when we are alone.
  • When friends or family provide us with food, we want to please them by indulging and therefore providing food becomes associated with praise and recognition.

Research leader Dr Helen Ruddock, from the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, said in the news release: "We found strong evidence that people eat more food when dining with friends and family than when alone. However, this social facilitation effect on eating was not observed across studies which had looked at food intake among people who were not well acquainted.

"Findings from previous research suggest that we often choose what (and how much) to eat based on the type of impression that we want to convey about ourselves. Evidence suggests that this may be particularly pronounced for women eating with men they wish to impress and for people with obesity who wish to avoid being judged for overeating."

The study shows that, as with many other species, humans tend to share a common food resource. Most humans are no longer hunter-gatherers, but the age-old behaviour of hunter-gatherers stuck through the evolution process, even though we now have an abundance of food.

How to socialise without overeating

Are you on a weight-loss journey or do you often find yourself overindulging at dinner parties and in social settings? Here are some easy tips to help you be more mindful of your food intake when dining with family and friends.

  • Don’t be extremely hungry when attending social gatherings. Eat a healthy snack like a piece of fruit or some almonds to tide you over.
  • Be mindful of your alcohol intake as this can increase your appetite and make you crave unhealthier options. Switch to water between drinks.
  • Take note of your emotions while you are eating. Do you feel anxious or overexcited in social surroundings? Or are you stressing about a deadline the next day? Rather talk about your feelings instead of soothing them with food. 
  • Focus on the conversation, rather than the menu. Put your utensils down while talking to the person next to you and make a point of carefully listening to the conversation.
  • Eat mindfully, especially when at a buffet or an event that offers canapes, as it is easy to underestimate portions.
  • When going to a restaurant, find the menu online beforehand to help you plan ahead and not be overwhelmed by the choices.
  • Dish small portions at first when you are at a dinner party or a buffet-style restaurant. You can always have more if you are still hungry.
  • Focus on your surroundings – the music, the table settings, the decor, the view, a piece of art at the venue – rather than the dishes in front of you. 
  • When visiting friends or family for a meal, offer to help with preparations to keep your hands busy and your mind off food.
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