Picture this scenario: You’re at a restaurant with a friend and plan to order grilled chicken with vegetables because you’re trying to eat healthier and shed some extra pounds. Your friend, on the other hand, wants to order a burger with the works and a heaping side of fries—and encourages you to do the same. So you switch your order just so your friend won’t feel bad about what she’s eating.
New research from Case Western University found that people-pleasers tend to eat more. In the study, involving 101 college students, participants completed a questionnaire to determine their levels of preoccupation with pleasing others and maintaining social harmony, otherwise known as “sociotropy.” They were then paired up in rooms with a female actor who took a small handful of M&Ms from a bowl and offered the rest to the participant. Researchers found that high-sociotropy individuals were more likely to eat greater amounts of M&Ms than other participants and admitted that they were trying to match the actor’s eating habits to make her feel more comfortable.
“People pleasers don’t like to pose any kind of threat to others,” says study co-author Julie Exline, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the university. “They don’t want to outshine someone and in this case, the way you’d be outshining is to eat healthy or really light when the other person is eating junk.”
Not sure if you qualify as a people pleaser? Ask yourself whether you agree with any of the following phrases used in the study’s questionnaire: “I worry a lot about hurting or offending other people”; “I’m very sensitive to criticism by others”; “I’m easily persuaded by others”; and “I’m too apologetic to other people.”
Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food”, says that you should also consider whether you frequently regret your decisions. If you often find yourself saying, “Oh, I should have done this instead of saying yes to that event” or “I wish I didn’t eat that cake my friend brought over,” your worry could be taking a toll on you, including your waistline.
People-pleasing aside, there’s a good chance you’ve mimicked your friends’ eating behaviors whether you realized it or not. Researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands paired up 70 women and observed them eating in a mock restaurant, noting bite timing for both participants. The experts found that women tended to mimic each other’s eating behavior. In other words, they were more likely to take a bite within five seconds after their eating companion took a bite rather than eat at their own pace.
The participants were also more than three times as likely to mimic the intake of their eating companion at the beginning of the interaction—in this study, the first 10 minutes—compared to the end of the interaction, or the last 10 minutes.
Whether it’s to make a good first impression—which might explain the mimicry timing results—or because seeing someone else do an action may physically trigger you to copy them, one thing is clear: “Women feel pressure to match or mirror other people’s eating habits,” says Dr. Albers.
Sure, we’ve all been there before. It’s tough to say no when your grandmother offers you a piece of her homemade pie or to slow down when all of your girlfriends are digging into nachos at happy hour. Every once in awhile is fine, but if you find yourself in this situation a lot, it can have detrimental effects on your health. “When [these negative social eating habits] start to become more of a pattern, you need to start paying close attention,” says Dr. Exline.
To stop these harmful behaviors from becoming a problem and causing weight gain, try these five easy tips:
Always order first. You can avoid the mirroring effect by being the first to pick your meal at restaurants, suggests Albers. That way, you set the tone and make the first decision rather than risk being swayed by others’ less-than-healthy orders.
Practice refusals. If your beloved aunt or mom is a food pusher, practice saying, “no thank you” in your head before you go to her house for a family dinner. “It has to effortlessly slide off your tongue, so that you can do it automatically,” says Albers. Struggling with your words or seeming indecisive creates an opening for others to put pressure on you to eat more than you want.
Think about why you’re eating. Take a split second to think about what you’re eating and why, suggests Exline. Sometimes it might be that you really just want the spaghetti Bolognese. Are you hungry? If yes, go ahead and eat it. But other times ask yourself this: Are you only ordering dessert because your friend is and she doesn’t want to chow down alone or are you eating that donut because everyone else in your office is digging in? Do you genuinely want it? If the answer is no, simply recognizing that fact can help give you a reason—and the willpower—to abstain.
Use humor. If you’re worried that you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings by passing on the dessert seconds, try making a joke. For example, one of Alber’s pregnant patients used this tactic when she was at a family gathering and wanted to politely turn down more food. “She said that she wanted to eat for two, not for three,” says Albers.
Keep the bonus benefits in mind. Learning to curb your people-pleasing ways and control your social eating will benefit your weight, but it can also influence your self-esteem, according to Albers. Situations in which you feel pressured to give in to other people’s wishes will come up again and again in life. Once you learn to handle them, you’ll feel more empowered and confident—and maybe even be a few pounds lighter to boot.
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