Why your friends could be making you fat
23June/2015

Why your friends could be making you fat

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Words: Dr Kellie Bilinski, Accredited Practising Dietitian

Most of us have thought about having a fitness buddy to exercise with, however have you ever thought about having a “Diet Buddy”? Having a supportive friend can be incredibly helpful when it comes to improving our lifestyle. In terms of exercise, a fitness buddy can help maintain our motivation, especially when we’re inclined to skip the exercise session if we’re busy or not feeling up to it. They can also help push us that little bit further than we normally would. For instance, if you’re struggling to get to the top of the hill on a walk, they can encourage you to make it. In addition, exercising with a friend can make it more enjoyable, which also makes the time pass quicker! We can apply these same principles to having a friend that can support our efforts to improve our diet.

Friendly food

If you dine out with a friend who shares the same goals, chances are you’re going to be more likely to choose a venue that offers healthier alternatives. And, on the occasion you are out together where there are foods on offer that you were trying to limit, Diet Buddies might just offer each other the support they need to stay on track.

Scientific research has shown that there’s a powerful influence of friends on our eating behaviour. For instance, a large study from Arizona State University showed that if our friends are heavy, we’re more likely to be heavy also. The reasons for this may include peer pressure; if our friends are eating a slice of cake, we’re more inclined to have some too. Or it may be that we lose sight of what our weight should be when those around us are carrying a little extra weight, or simply that we have the same bad habits when it comes to choosing foods and snacking.

So while we know that friends eating can cause us to eat more than we normally would, a study conducted at the University of Minnesota has shown that friends can also be helpful in reducing the amount we eat. The study observed eating behaviour when small groups of friends got together to discuss a campus issue. In half of the groups, two of the three friends were asked to restrict what they ate while the third friend was unaware of them being asked not to eat too much; whereas the other groups were allowed to eat as they normally would. After the group discussion, the friends were then asked to take their plates of cookies into separate rooms to complete another task individually. The researchers found that the student who was unaware that the friends had been asked to restrict their consumption of cookies, ate fewer cookies. Even after the friends split up, people continued to eat fewer cookies alone if they had just watched their friends avoid eating the cookies. This highlights that even when we’re not with our friends, their eating habits can still influence ours, for the better.

Choose wisely

When starting out with your “Diet Buddy”, think about entering a contract with them. That way you’ll be less inclined to break your side of the agreement or let them down. Establish a few guidelines that each of you must abide by, and include consequences if either of you break them. For instance, you might include a guideline on how many servings of vegetables you should eat during the day, a limit on the number of alcoholic drinks you have, a ban on snacking on fatty foods and ordering rich desserts at a restaurant. It’s also good to have a few clauses in your contract that allow a few treats, this helps prevent the feeling of being too restricted. Some examples of consequences of breaking the rules might be that you have a money jar, where you put $1 in for each rule break – you might use the money to see a movie or go to a day spa together.

It’s important that we focus on a healthy eating pattern rather than follow a particular “weight loss diet”. If it’s weight loss you’re trying to achieve, it’s important to look at your lifestyle and eating habits. Weight-loss diets are only a temporary solution as they’re usually difficult to maintain in the long-term and don’t address the habits that got you to that weight in the first place. An Accredited Practising Dietitian is able to look at your lifestyle and eating habits and offer the support you need to make improvements that are more likely to become a lifestyle choice.

A recent study found that one friend is lost per three kilograms dropped.

About the author

Dr Kellie Bilinski is an Accredited Practising Dietitian. Accredited Practising Dietitians are university qualified health professionals who are able to individually assess your diet and develop an eating plan that will allow you to lose weight, without risking your health. Visit the ‘Find an APD’ section of the Dietitians Association of Australia website at www.daa.asn.au to find an APD in your area.

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