Social cues affect choices we make on a daily basis, from how we dress to what kind of car we drive. But now, research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that what other people eat influences our own food choices.
Conducting a meta-analysis from 15 studies published in 11 different publications, researchers examined whether or not other peoples' eating habits influenced food intake levels or food choices.
Of the studies, eight looked at how food consumption norms affected the amount of food consumed by study participants, while seven others analyzed how food choice norms affected what people chose to eat.
Lead investigator Eric Robinson, of the University of Liverpool in the UK, says that "in some contexts, conforming to informational eating norms may be a way of reinforcing identity to a social group, which is in line with social identity theory."
And the researchers found consistent evidence that social norms do influence food.
If study participants received information about whether others made low- or high-calorie food choices, they were more likely to make similar choices. In addition, if the participants were told that others were eating larger amounts of food, they also increased their own food intake.
The researchers say this suggests a strong association between eating and social identity.
Study 'could shape public policies'
Investigators working on the study suggest that social norms influence our food choices out of a need to solidify our place in a social group.
Robinson says that "if a person's sense of self is strongly guided by their identity as a member of their local community and that community is perceived to eat healthily, then that person would be hypothesized to eat healthily in order to maintain a consistent sense of social identity."
In a way, this suggests that we can be peer pressured into eating healthily - if those around us are doing the same, that is.
But the researchers say these social mechanisms that affect what we choose to eat are there even when we are alone and whether or not we are aware of them.
"Norms influence behavior by altering the extent to which an individual perceives the behavior in question to be beneficial to them. Human behavior can be guided by a perceived group norm, even when people have little or no motivation to please other people."
He says that in some of the studies conducted, participants did not acknowledge that their behavior was affected by the information they received about eating norms, so he suggests study participants "may not have been consciously considering the norm information when making food choices."
Though they say more research is needed, the team says studies like theirs can help shape public policy and communication about healthy food choices.
"Policies or messages that normalize healthy eating habits or reduce the prevalence of beliefs that lots of people eat unhealthily may have beneficial effects on public health," adds Robinson.
Medical News Today reported on another study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which suggested eating speed may have more of an impact on hunger suppression than actual caloric intake does.