Our Friends Make us Fat. Maybe.

Do our friends make us fat?  Technology can definitely influence how much we eat, and therefore our weight.  So does the time it takes for us to make healthy food.  There is lots of evidence to suggest that yes, our friends, can lead to increases in food consumption and our weight.

Imagine you go out to grab a meal at your favorite restaurant.  To make this easy, let’s assume you eat 100 calories worth of food if you are by yourself (in all actually, meals are more along the lines of 1200 calories, but I hate math, so let’s stick with 100 calories).  Studies of how people eat in the real world (compared to those done in labs) show that if you go to the restaurant with one other person, you’ll increase your calorie consumption by 33%.   In other words, you will eat 133 calories.  Bring two friends, you consume 147 calories.  Research has shown that by the time you include 7 friends, you will almost double the number of calories you eat. Here is how our 100 calorie dinner has grown:

So what does the mean in ‘real’ numbers?  In 2010 the US Dept of Commerce collected how many calories the average customer at Starbucks ordered:  232.  If we apply the above figure to the average customer ordering food at Starbucks, but this time bringing friends, below is a chart showing the caloric increases.

Our friends, though, are the least of our worries.  Eating with your spouse or a family member almost doubles the calories consumed than if you ate with just your friend.  And of course, there are gender differences.  If you are male, it doesn’t matter if your friend is male or female, you’ll increase your calories about the same.  If you are female, however, you eat more with a male friend then if you are eating with a female friend (personally, I thought it would be the other way around).

So what is happening here?  Why do I eat more with my friends than if I eat alone?  Personal experience gives me one clue:  When I go out to eat with friends, we often start with drinks (which many people forget, do have calories) and a shared appetizer, or two.  (Hell, let’s be honest, we often order three).   Then we each order a meal, and most likely another drink.  Who knows, we might even share our meals.  Whereas alone I or my friend might just order a nice, low-cal Caesar Salad, when there are two, I am more inclined to suggest you order the Caesar Salad, and I’ll order the Chicken Cordon Bleu, and we can split them!  And of course, we might just split dessert. We also know that when we eat with others, we linger.  Eating is a social event, so we take our time.  On average eating with one other person increase the time spent eating by 44%, which means we sit and nibble longer too.

So why the maybe in the title?  Because for large eaters, the effect is the opposite.  If I am someone that usually eats significantly more than the average person, then when I eat with the average person, I drop my calorie consumptionIn other words, eating with others is a normative phenomenon.  Light eaters increase their calories per meal when eating with others, while heavy eaters decrease their calories when eating with others, approaching a middle ground.

So maybe eating with others makes you heavier, but maybe not.  The jury is out on this one.

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