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The psychology of eating in groups

And how to avoid overeating.

This article was last updated Aug. 5, 2022.

When deciding what to eat, it’s seldom a matter of whether or not we’re hungry. Often, we make decisions based on where we are and who we’re with at the time. And sometimes, we choose to eat something — or not to eat something — to avoid scrutiny or pressure from others.

If you’re aiming to adopt a healthy lifestyle or drop that extra weight, make a plan to conquer those social situations that keep you from sticking to a healthy diet.

Most of us know what it’s like to be in situations where we’re trying to eat healthy, but feel pressure to indulge in food and/or drink:

  • Family reunions, potlucks, office parties, tailgates, or dinner and drinks out with certain groups of people.
    Rituals you may enjoy with that special someone. For example, the large soda and bucket of buttered popcorn you share at the movies.
  • Work or family celebrations that tend to revolve around ice cream and cake.
  • Loved ones who go out of their way to make your favorite dishes, like that special casserole, giant cinnamon rolls, homemade pie, or in some cases, all three at once.

“When it comes to outside influences, it’s wise to plan ahead so you can make choices that help you stick to your new lifestyle,” says Julie Enga, R.D., a Wellmark dietitian.

“That said, it’s not realistic to make healthy choices 100 percent of the time,” says Enga. “It’s ok to indulge every now and then, if you’re making healthy choices most of the time. As a guideline, I tell my clients to aim to make healthy choices 80 percent of the time.”

The psychology of eating out in groups

33% — We eat this much more food when eating a meal with one other person, rather than dining out alone. Research shows we eat a 47 percent bigger meal when dining with two other people. The more company we keep when eating out, the more we tend to eat, often without even realizing it, according to research published in the journal Nutrition.

6.5 lbs. — Participants lost this much more weight when they had the support of at least one partner, rather than going it alone, according to a Harvard Public School of Health study. In fact, studies show a supportive relationship can either help or hurt your diet.

Be #1 — If you are determined to make healthy choices, be the first to order when eating at a restaurant with a group of people. When ordering aloud, people tend to order similar items, according to a University of Illinois study.

What to say to food pushers

For those events when indulging isn’t part of your plan, but you feel pressure to eat, the easiest response is a simple “No, thanks.” No apologies, no explanation, and no guilt are necessary. Most people will accept a “No, thanks,” when it’s said with conviction. If more is necessary, try the following:

  • For people who won’t accept a “No, thanks,” try “Thanks, but I’m not hungry,” or “Sorry, I’m stuffed.” To end the conversation there, change the subject.
  • If you have a food allergy or sensitivity, and are being pressured, try “Thank you, but [dairy, pizza, sugar] doesn’t really agree with me, so I have to pass.” Again, change the subject.
  • For people who are particularly pushy, try “It looks delicious. Maybe I’ll try some later.” Maybe you will try a bit later, maybe you won’t.
  • For situations when you would like to indulge, but it doesn’t fit into your plan for the day, ask for the food item to be packaged up, so you can enjoy it tomorrow.

“Every time you make a decision that is good for yourself, it builds your confidence and helps you continue to make healthy choices,” says Enga. “It’s a great time to reflect and remind yourself why you are working on a healthy lifestyle. Are you doing this so you can travel? So you can play with your grandkids? With all the food and social situations we encounter, healthy eating can be a daily, and sometimes hourly, battle. That’s why it’s important to continually find and remind yourself of your motivation.”

When to have a heart-to-heart

Remember that many people make and offer food out of a sense of love or to show they care. The person offering the food might not know, for example, that you are at risk for diabetes or trying to manage your cholesterol. Disclosing that information is up to you.

If it’s someone close to you, like a parent or close friend you feel you can confide in, you might want to have a heart-to-heart talk about your goals, and why you are trying to live a healthier lifestyle. It may be helpful for that person to understand why it’s important for you to stick to a plan. They likely will be supportive, or even help you in your cause.

In some cases, you may have friends or family who feel threatened by your plan to eat healthier. In these types of situations, you might want to avoid events where you will be eating together. In extreme cases, you may want to avoid that person altogether.

Think positive and plan ahead

What is it about those situations that throws off your resolve? “Again, these are the situations where you need to develop and strengthen your willpower,” says Enga. “When it comes to self-control, have a positive attitude and remember you will get stronger with time.” Here are a few strategies to try:

  • Bring your own food to share at parties or potlucks, or any event where you know there will be tempting choices. This way, you’ll know there will be something there that you will enjoy eating.

  • Bring this crowd-pleasing favorite to your next get-together

    It's always a good idea to get more vegetables in your diet and cauliflower rice makes it simple. This cauliflower rice with peas and mushrooms recipe is not only delicious, but filled with fiber, keeping you full long after your meal and your guests satisfied.

  • Keep healthy snacks on hand. If 3 p.m. rolls around and you know there’s cake in the break room, or the vending machine is calling your name, you’ll be prepared with a snack you can enjoy without guilt.
  • Take a walk, drink a glass of water, or chew sugar-free gum. Distract yourself from the temptation.
  • Be up-front with your partner. It can be very difficult to say “no” to a handful of chips when your partner is munching away next to you. In these situations, don’t expect loved ones to know your needs. Speak up. If you can’t have certain foods around the house, like chips or packaged snacks, come to a reasonable compromise. Ask your spouse or partner for support.
  • Get support. If you don’t feel you have the support you need, join forces with a friend or join a weight-loss support group.

Start small

Most people find it especially difficult to change a number of unhealthy eating habits at once. Instead, try making small changes that you can implement one at a time.

So, instead of: “I’m going to eat healthy,” or “I’m going to lose 10 pounds,” commit to the following smaller changes:

  • I’ll eat a salad with dinner.
  • I’ll eat a healthy breakfast every morning.
  • I’ll keep healthy snacks on hand.
  • I’ll eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • I’ll eat out just once a week.