According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, which examines how other peoples’ weight and food choices influence how much we eat, we are more likely to eat more in the presence of a thin person who eats a lot.
I’m not really sure how broadly (sorry) applicable these findings are, but they at least add to a growing body (double sorry) of evidence that indicates how our eating behaviours are shaped by social cues.
The press release, as usual, oversimplifies the concepts underlying the research. However it also points in an intriguing direction: how to interpret the fundamentally social nature of eating. Disordered eating is most often done in private, by oneself; it is deemed a shameful act and thus engaged in alone.
Judging by cross-cultural evidence, eating socially is important for regulating our intake and contributes to our wellbeing. Cultures that prioritize shared meals appear less likely to have food-related health problems. Families that eat meals together demonstrate fewer problems such as teenage substance abuse and alienation, as well as a better nutrient intake. In other words, eating with other people is usually good for us.
Thus, I’m not sure “avoid skinny hungry people” is the advice we need to take from these findings. Rather, it points to the possibility that we as humans are predisposed to view eating as a social as well as a physiological activity. It also suggests that we need to consider our eating occasions carefully, opting for shared, joyful meals rather than furtive munching.