Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

Unhealthy eatingWho wants to look weird and different in front of friends? No doubt when it comes to food preferences, for teens especially, what they eat is often influenced by what their peers are eating. But what about peer pressure, food choices and weight management with adults?

If you’re concerned about healthy nutrition and weight control, the harsh reality is that you have to be aware of what your friends are eating and their size. In fact, we know that celebrities and models have a great deal of influence on food choice and body image, but peer influence is even greater when it comes to personal views on health, diet and weight.

“I'll have what she’s having,” isn’t just a great movie line—it’s been found to be the “contagion factor” in the ever-growing obesity and overweight population. Friends, it seems, influence us in many ways, including whether we smoke, take vitamins, get the flu shot, drink too much, smoke or exercise.

When you hang out with friends who are overweight or obese, research suggests that you may be 57 percent more likely to pack on some serious poundage yourself. 

If you can’t blame your friends, perhaps you can blame your brain. You see, under the influence of these foodies, the part of your brain—the occipital lobe—that’s supposed to help you make good decisions, fails you. You are under the sway of what they are doing, not what you know you would be wise to do instead. Perhaps you think, “Maybe being overweight isn’t so unhealthy.” It’s not a virus you are catching, but behaviors and social norms are certainly influential.

Researchers who study this type of peer influence on eating and weight gain say there’s a “3 degrees of separation” influence that takes place.

1st degree: Close friends who are obese increase your chance of becoming obese by 57 percent.
2nd degree: Friends of friends who are obese raises your risk by 20 percent.
3rd degree: If a friend of a friend’s friend is obese, even if you never met them, your risk increases by 10 percent. 

Want to find a way to fight back and still keep your friends, friends of friends and that friend you never met who’s a friend of a friend? Try these four steps:

1. My CHAIR technique:

  • Commit to personal responsibility (avoiding drinks, appetizers, focusing on the main course, sharing a dessert taste)
  • Healthy eating always no matter where, with who or when
  • Activity that’s moderate to vigorous daily
  • Internal motivation, not just external motivation
  • Realistic goals, specific for each encounter with friends

2. Build a social network with healthy foodies who share your goals and values around health and fitness and who know their bodies well enough to say, “No.”

3. Be the social influencer for your friends who are stuck in unhealthy behaviors and thinking patterns, and exercise your willpower, discipline and self control.

4. Become friends with two words, “Regardless” and “Nevertheless.”  

  • “Oh c’mon, a Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino Blended Creme with whipped cream” and a “Cinnabon's Caramel Pecanbon” won’t kill you—it’s a party!”
  • “Well, regardless, I am going to pass, but thanks very much.” OR “Well, nevertheless, I’ll pass on the goodies, but I love having fun hanging with you for the celebration.”

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