Elaborate dinner parties, a business lunch, and after-work happy hours generally make for a great time, but definitely don’t help the waistline. In fact, studies show eating with other people, whether friends or strangers, fat or skinny, boy or girl, all have an impact on what people eat and how much.

You Are What Your Friends Eat – The Takeaway

In a study of ‘tweens and teens, researchers found that kids, regardless of weight, ate more with a friend than with a peer they didn’t know. However, the biggest jump in calorie intake occurred when overweight children snacked with overweight friends. And the same pattern was found in adults– people eat about 35 percent more when dining with friends and about 96 percent more when with a group more than seven.

Around strangers, on the other hand, people are more self-conscious and so, in turn, eat less. But, when with friends and family, people tend to be more comfortable and don’t question how it looks to go back for that third helpingThe Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 years. Christakis, NA., Fowler, JH. Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. The New England Journal of Medicine 2007 Jul 26;357(4):370-9..

On a date? One study found that females ate less in the presence of a male friend and, the more men present, the less the women consumedFood for thought. What you eat depends on your sex and eating companions. Young, ME., Mizzau, M., Mai, NT., et al. Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4K1, Canada. Appetite 2009 Oct;53(2):268-71.. Simply put: obesity (and eating habits) seem to be contagious. This doesn’t mean swearing off all social events– friends and family are understandably important to physical and emotional health. Nonetheless, it may mean people need to be more conscientious about what and how much they’re eating.

Consider planning social outings around physical or other healthy activities: meet for tea, plan a hike, take a dance class, or take a trip to the farmers’ market. If getting away from food isn’t entirely possible, consider keeping pace with the lightest eater of the group, “pregaming dinner” by eating fiber-rich foods beforehand, or following this restaurant rule: “enjoy two, but not all three: an appetizer, a drink, or a desert.” Maintaining optimal health may require giving up that chocolate cake everyone in the group wants, but not a social life.

The Tip

Be extra conscious of portions when eating with friends or family to avoid overeating. Updated December 2011