Why do people eat the way they do? Food choices are based on many factors, and a new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explores the degree to which environment and social norms affect what we eat. Answering this question could help public health officials identify how to help people make good choices as part of the fight against sustained obesity rates.
Examining data from 15 studies that observed food intake and food choice, the study's researchers confirmed that people eat more when others around them are eating more, and that they eat less when they believe smaller portions are the norm. Similarly, people choose food types based on what they perceive is a social norm. One explanation for the effect of social norms on eating behavior is an individual's desire to fit in -- to identify with a given group and gain social approval, either to please the group or for the individual's own benefit.
The studies that comprised the meta-analysis ranged in method, but they all investigated how social influence had an impact on individuals' consumption patterns. In a variety of ways, researchers primed participants -- either by written or visual cue -- and observed how much individuals consumed and also what kind of food they chose based on the given prompt.
Because people are affected by social influence, public messages portraying healthful eating as a cultural norm could influence people to improve dietary habits, the researchers concluded. Likewise, messages that discredit the assumption that a lot of people eat unhealthfully could also influence people to eat better.
Past research has shown that social environment influences eating patterns. People will "alter their food intake to match the intake of dining companions," and obesity has been shown to spread through social relationships. This study investigated the strength of that impact, as well as when and how these influencing factors occur.