Your Friends’ Bad Eating Habits Are Contagious

77277282Hello 2014! It’s a new year and a lot of us are thinking about shedding those extra pounds and paying more attention to our diet and exercise routines. Is it just me, or are my pants fitting a little tight?

As a doctor, you’d think I’d know better. And I do, but social gatherings have such a strong connection to food. We have cake for birthdays and four-course gourmet spreads to mark milestones and achievements. Or rounds of chicken wings, beers and garlic bread with the guys in the man cave to watch the game. Then there’s the family shindigs with Aunt Mary’s amazing casserole, cherry cobbler and my sister’s chocolate fudge (with Mother’s recipe). Second Helping could be my middle name. After the holiday seasonal excess of buffets and turkey hangovers, we feel as though our bodies certainly could use some TLC – along with a week of broth-based soups and carrot sticks. In fact, the average person gains one pound of winter weight each year, and those pounds add up.


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Eating better and getting off the couch should be January’s mandate. How do we do it to be successful, and not fall back into tired, old routines and spreading love handles? New research has the answer, although it’s not pretty: Peer pressure rules, so when your pals eat poorly, you’re likely to dig in. You need to ditch those friends with bad eating habits to lose the pounds.

Eating out can be so tricky when you’re trying to eat healthfully, watch your portion sizes and not overdo it. Our plates are stacked against us! The more you’re served, of course, the more you tend to eat. And we all like our “supersize me” value meal deals. In the past 20 years in the U.S., restaurant servings of hamburgers have expanded by 23 percent; a plate of Mexican food is 27 percent bigger; soft drinks have increased in size by 52 percent, and snacks, including potato chips, pretzels or crackers, are 60 percent larger. It’s no wonder the prevalence of adult obesity in the U.S. has increased from 14.5 in 1971 to 30.9 percent in 1999.

So, here’s the gist of it: If your best buddy likes to get together for a juicy burger and fries every week for lunch, swap him out of your social circle for your crusty vegan neighbor and tofu and greens. Is that so?!

University of Illinois researchers say that people who dine out together at restaurants choose similar menu items because they like to fit in and join the party. If your friend or brother goes for the fried chicken and mashed with gravy, you’re likely to select an equally high-fat, high-grease entrée on the menu. If he orders pie and ice cream for dessert, you probably will, too, without batting an eye (and then loosening your belt). For the study, the lead researcher and food economist, Brenna Ellison, worked with a full-service restaurant in Stillwater, Okla. to collect lunch receipts for three months and discuss with the servers the behavior and satisfaction of diners.

Not so surprisingly, Ellison found that people were happier if they were making similar choices to those sitting with them. She also found if someone ordered an item from the salad menu, initial unhappiness at choosing a less indulgent meal was offset when others had ordered from the salad menu. The solution to better eating and weight management, therefore, was nudging people toward healthier friends rather than healthier foods.

Findings from the study were presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economic Association. It’s a good thing that I wasn’t there, because my blood would boil and then I’d start with the eye rolls and head shakes. Really, this is another example of scientists working in a bubble, not realizing the true implications of what they’re recommending.

You think I’m going to sacrifice a friendship over table manners? If my best buddy enjoys a deli sandwich with potato chips or French fries, he’s not worth my time? The truth is, friends are hard to come by. And the older you get, the harder it can be to meet new people and make new ones. I wonder if the scientist who made the recommendation to get rid of our unhealthy friends, has any real friends left.

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On top of that, I run a smoking cessation clinic. I know how hard it is to quit smoking. It’s one of the most difficult things to do. I also know how important it is to have friends. You need them for support and encouragement. You need them to share the highs and lows of life and get through the tough times. You can’t unload all that on your spouse or partner, and it’s too much to shoulder on your own.

I can get behind the logic of exercise buddies where you and a friend commit to a daily walk or exercise routine to keep each other accountable. It’s much more difficult for that voice in your head to cancel your workout when a friend is counting on you to show up. There’s also an emotional connection and social aspect that makes the joint activity more rewarding. Studies show that people with exercise partners perform better and see long-term results.

But how does this concept translate to healthy eating? First of all, give that friend of yours a hug. A friend sticks by you and loves you despite your faults and faux pas. Treasure them! Social connections overall make us happier, healthier people. I have some simple and practical suggestions to help make your social eating a healthier experience:

1. Swap Out The Beef For Turkey, On Occasion

A great burger, grilled to perfection with choice toppings, and sandwiched between a lightly toasted bun? Well, that’s iconic American food, and worth tucking into with a good buddy to share the joy. How about a slight tweak to the menu? Swap out the beef for a turkey or veggie patty every other time you join your friend for lunch. Split the French fries between you and grab a salad to balance out the spread.

Red meat is not the devil. It’s iron-rich and sizzles on the barbecue. As a practical way to ensure your health, mix lean cuts of red meat with fattier options; fatty cuts are very caloric. Stay active, eat more vegetables and fruits, consume protein from a variety of sources, and enjoy your meat – and a burger with your buddy – without guilt.

2. Eat Half Your Portion And Take It Slow

Restaurant food, for the most part, is richer, more caloric and often irresistible not to finish on the plate. It’s true, just like a sandwich always tastes better when someone else makes it for you, having a meal served to you (without the cooking and dish duty) makes you smile. So order what you want, and truly savor it. Start by taking a knife and portioning off half your plate or eating only half of your sandwich, slowly. Enjoy the good food and good conversation with your pals and take your time. I bet, if you wait 20 minutes into the meal, you won’t be tempted to finish the other half. It takes that amount of time for your body to signal that you’re full and satiated.

Celebrated food writer and author Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010) explains it this way, “The banquet is in the first bite.” Economists call this the law of diminishing marginal utility. The real pleasure in food comes in the first few bites and then it starts to diminish. By the 25th chew, it’s all about calories and not pleasure.

By eating half the serving, your pleasure factor is still high, and half the calories can is all you really need. Then you can ask your server to pack a doggie bag to go. You’ll be set for lunch the following day.

3. Go For Two Drinks And Then Stop

Having a toast or a great glass of wine with a friend is festive and part of our culture. Sparkling soda water with lime as a stand-in can only do so much. Alcohol, however, is full of empty calories, leads to dehydration and does a number on your good judgment. You can easily get caught up in the “buzz” and overdo it. My rule of thumb is moderation with everything you do. Try a two-drink maximum.

Red wine, with its reputed heart health benefits, is a little higher in calories than white wine, but likely worth the extra. It has an average of 125 calories per five-ounce glass. Just watch for those extra-large restaurant goblets that can hold eight-ounces.

Beer or wine? Regular beer packs a heavier punch. On average, a 12-ounce glass of regular beer, considered one drink, has 153 calories. Both, though, are lighter than cocktails mixed with high-sugar juice and syrups.

4. Eat More Soup and Salad

78634043No one wants to feel deprived and hungry when they’re trying to slim down. The trick is, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is to choose foods that will fill you up without eating a large amount of calories. And start your meal off by drinking the glass of water at the table, to help boost your metabolism and help you feel less ravenous.

Broth-based soups and salads with lean protein and plenty of vegetables provide the volume and filling power without the calorie bombs. Go light on the salad dressing, too, and opt for one that uses healthy fresh herbs and vinegar.

Choose soup as your appetizer. But please avoid high-fat cream soups and chowders. A PennState study found that when participants in the study ate a first course of soup before a lunch entree, they reduced their total calorie intake at lunch by 20 percent. A broth soup is easy to digest as well, so you won’t feel like taking a nap shortly after your meal.

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5. Dine In More Often

Having friends over for a meal has its own special gratification. You’ve planned and prepared for the event and opened up your house to them. The experience becomes so much more personal and familiar than dining out among a roomful of strangers. As for your meal, you have so much more control over ingredients, preparation and portions. You can even serve a small fruit course before the deep-dish apple pie, or keep things delicious and healthy all the way – you’re the host!

Another option is to organize a potluck where your friends can pitch in and bring their favorite dishes, prepared with love, of course. The savings to your budget and weight management will be significant.

6. Snack Smarter

If you have the mega-bag of caramel corn or Lays potato chips in plain sight, you’re more likely to rip open the bag and plant yourself on the couch with a willing friend, polishing off the bag in no time. Our hunger can be motivated by visual cues; that’s why companies spend the big bucks on persuasive packaging. Downsize your snacking by buying a small bag of potato chips and go baked. Baked chips, rather than chips fried in oil, have 30 fewer calories and eight fewer grams of fat. Plus, there are salt-free versions if you want to reduce the sodium content.

Then mix up your snack routine with some pistachios or peanuts in the shell. Nuts are full of good fats, and shelled nuts slow down the speed eating. If you can handle the unsalted ones, even better!


While I’m proud of my affiliation with the medical community, I really feel scientific studies can only go so far into helping modify our behaviors. You can’t put a price on common sense – or good friends – so dine with them, often, and have fun.

Yours in Good Health,

Dr. Victor Marchione