Much has been written about the demise of the family dinner. In our fast-paced, always-on world that never seems to stop spinning, we mourn the loss of that quality time with loved ones. There has always been a social component to eating. Sharing food throughout human history has helped solidify bonds among peoples. It’s fun to eat with friends and family, and I have little doubt that it is good for enhancing our general well-being.
In this article, however, I’m not interested in whether eating together is good for our souls; I’m interested in whether it is good for our bodies. If we’re trying to lose weight, would we be better off eating alone or with other people? Does dining together make us consumer more food than we would alone? Let’s ask the research…
It turns out that the verdict on this question is like that of many others: it depends. Without considering any other variables, group size does tend to have a significant influence on how much food we consume. In one study, participants consumed 33% more food when eating with a friend than they did when eating by themselves. Similarly, studies have shown that the larger the group, the more food is consumed. People who eat in groups of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 consume 47%, 58%, 69%, 70%, 72%, and 96% more food, respectively.
So, fundamentally, yes eating with other people does increase the likelihood of you eating more. However, there are circumstances in which you might eat less when around other people. When we are surrounded by people with whom we are comfortable, we tend to eat more because we linger longer and are not very self-conscious of our eating. However, when we eat with strangers or acquaintances (i.e. a job interview or first date), we eat less because we become more self-conscious.
In addition to our level of familiarity with our dinner companions, the consumption norms of those companions can also influence how much we eat. In one study, participants ate more cookies and drank more water when surrounded by other people who were eating more cookies and drinking more water, and they ate and drank less when surrounded by other people who were eating and drinking less. If we’re around people who are eating more, we eat more. If we’re around people who are eating less, we eat less.
So, to sum up, here’s what I would recommend in regards to social eating, if your goal is to lose weight:
- As a rule, eat alone. Try to eat most of your meals by yourself and be cognizant of how much you are eating.
- When you do go out to eat with people, try to eat with new people. In addition to the benefit of making new friends, the heightened sense of self-awareness will also prevent you from eating as much.
- If you are going to go out with friends, go out with friends who are also dieting. If your dinner companions are eating less, you probably will too.
Wansink, B. (n.d.). Environmental Factors That Increase The Food Intake And Consumption Volume Of Unknowing Consumers*. Annual Review of Nutrition, 455-479.
Photo Credit (People Eating): Juhan Sonin licensed via Creative Commons