With the festive season upon us, it is time to share good things with friends, colleagues, and family. There will be seasonal foods, celebratory drinks, and special ways of sharing and enjoying them.
For some, a fear of weight gain will take the shine off the big day. Others will eat too much and regret it later, as heartburn, nausea, and other types of discomfort kick in.
Why do we eat what we do, in the way that we do, at times of celebration?
Understanding this may help to curb the excesses, while still having fun.
Research suggests that eating habits are transmitted socially, and that social influence affects what and how much we eat. Social influence refers to the impact that one or more people have on the behavior of others, including food consumption.
This can be direct and conscious – for example, “Eat your vegetables, they are good for you” – or indirect and subconscious, including the habits acquired from those around us.
When we eat with others, we tend to conform to their ways. Even when eating alone, it seems food choice is influenced by the attitudes and habits that have evolved from interacting with others.
Ajken’s Theory of Planned Behavior proposes that three factors affect behavior, including food consumption.
- Perception of social pressure to perform a behavior
- Perceived control over the behavior.
How easily we are affected by others, and how strong our own beliefs are, will impact our choices.
Food choice for humans is shaped by a number of factors, according to the European Union Food Information Council (EUFIC).
- Economic: cost, income, and availability of food items
- Biological: hunger, appetite, and taste
- Physical: access, education, cooking skills, and time
- Social: culture, family, peers, and meal patterns
- Psychological: mood, stress, and guilt
- Attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about food.
The role of each can vary according to individual circumstances. It can also depend on the occasion.
At Thanksgiving or Christmas, economic considerations may decrease, as people save or borrow to bridge the gap for a special occasion.
Biological factors can also shift. Foods associated with the holiday will rise in popularity. People may try things they do not usually eat, and they may continue to eat when they are not hungry. Those who do not usually like turkey or sprouts may indulge for Christmas.
Physical factors may be set aside. Someone who does not have the time, experience, or facilities to cook a turkey, for example, can eat out, order in, or delegate that task to another family member.
Foods that are not around all year suddenly appear on the shelves. Manufacturers and retailers ensure access to all the necessary goodies by arranging for additional production, stockpiling, or shipping in of foods that are not on the shelves all year.
Meanwhile, social, psychological, and attitudinal influences may take on a new role.
Research indicates that social context has a strong impact on eating behavior. What and how much we eat depends largely on those around us. In short, we eat to impress.
In a 2016 study, Higgs and colleagues describe these influences as “powerful and pervasive.”
People eat differently whether in a group or alone, and food consumption depends on who is sitting round the table.
If a fellow diner is eating a large amount, a person will probably eat more than they would alone. When eating with someone who eats less than we normally would, we will eat less.
In addition, the bigger the group, say researchers, the more people will eat, regardless of age, hunger levels, dietary restrictions, and health goals. This is true whether we know the group or not.
The norm is set by the group, and especially by those members who are more similar to each other. The more we identify, the more likely we are to conform.
Not only are we keen to “create a favorable social impression,” says Higgs, but we find it rewarding to adapt and to conform with the behavior of others. Both the food and the shared experience make people feel good.
Conversely, people at a formal event are less likely to start a dish of nibbles unless they see that someone else is already doing so. Guests are more likely to help themselves, for example, if they see discarded wrappers near a dish of chocolates.
Researchers believe this may stem from a fear of being judged, or of breaking some unwritten rule that everyone else seems to be aware of.
The combination of males and females in a group has a further impact.
Researchers have observed that women in a fast food restaurant eat less in mixed groups than in an all-female group.
Women also appear to consume less when eating with a male partner. This could be because they are more concerned about making a good impression when a man is present.
Some studies have found that men eat less when with a female partner, but intake goes up when in groups that include women. Elsewhere, Kevin Kniffen and co-authors, from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, found that in the company of at least one woman, men ate 93 percent more than when they were only with men.
Scientists hypothesize that this may stem from an unconscious desire possibly “to assert their masculinity” when a “desirable partner” is present.
The presence of men, says Higgs, may remind the women of their wish to remain attractive, bringing to mind a fear of gaining weight.
Another explanation might be that the women are subconsciously adhering to the stereotype that females eat lightly, while in the male stereotype, men compete by eating large amounts.
Authors of research just published by Cornell Food and Brand Lab express concerns that competitive eating among young men is putting them at risk of obesity.
Findings showed that when young men participated in an eating competition, they ate 30 percent more when an audience was present. In addition, they described the experience as “challenging, cool and exhilarating.”
Shared cultural expectations help to determine what we eat. They also evolve over time. The size of a cultural group can range from a shared national or ethnic identity to a teen peer group or a single family.
“A cultural group provides guidelines regarding acceptable foods, food combinations, eating patterns, and eating behaviors.”
A celebratory meal is often shared with close social connections, the people with whom our dietary choices are most likely to converge, according to Higgs and colleagues.
Turkey and pumpkin pie are popular Christmas fare throughout the wider community, but families have their own foibles too. Incorporating items that have become part of family tradition can load up the table with far more food than is necessary and make overeating harder to avoid.
Meal patterns also vary. In some cultures, the feast is shared on Christmas Eve. Some households will share just one meal on Christmas Day, while others will have a hearty Christmas breakfast, and supper too.
Family and peer group culture can affect the role of alcohol in celebrations. Alcohol does not have to be part of Christmas, but in some groups, refusing alcohol can make a person feel like a “party pooper.”
Christmas may not be Christmas without eggnog, but there are nonalcoholic alternatives out there. If you are invited, consider putting in an advance order for nonalcoholic eggnog.
The contents of the meal can also vary. Higgs and co-authors point out that the more the group values or rejects a food, the more likely the individual is to do the same.
One family may favor a heavily meat-based meal, while another considers a wide array of vegetables a must-have. Piling up a plate with vegetables before adding a little meat can mean a healthier intake and fewer calories.
Even normally healthy eaters can make unwise food choices during a celebration. Being aware of the pressures of tradition can help us to make healthy choices even within that tradition.
Conforming to norms of consumption can be a way of establishing an identity within a social group.
A study of Peruvian teenagers found that most teens prepared healthy food and ate it at home, but with their friends, the default diet was chips and soda.
For young people, rejecting unhealthy habits can lead to mockery and ostracism.
Adults, too, may follow healthy habits for most of the year, but not having a drink at the Christmas party can invite a reputation for being a wet blanket.
Jonah Berger’s book – Contagious – recounts the experience of Koreen Johannessen, a social worker who was concerned about students’ binge drinking.
On closer examination, Johannessen found that most students were uncomfortable with this habit, but they did this because they thought that everyone else wanted to do it. They did it to conform to expectations, because they did not know what the others were thinking.
Food influences mood, and mood can influence food choices.
Getting together in a “festive mood” increases the likelihood of excess consumption and the intake of unhealthy items.
According to one study, the average person consumes over 7,000 calories on Christmas Day, more than triple the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended daily caloric intake.
Fatty foods, chocolate, and alcohol can make people feel good, but only in the short term.
Party time can be a good excuse to put the diet on hold. After all, Christmas is not a time to feel guilty about food.
But guilt comes in different guises.
Many people will have not just one but two large meals in one day, as they do the rounds of the in-laws. And how can you say “no” to Mom’s famous pumpkin pie, when she has made it especially for you?
Diet-induced guilt gives way to guilt at saying no, or at having consumed too much.
After two desserts, a queasy feeling gnaws at the stomach, and the bathroom scales are back in the mind’s eye.
Saying “No, thank you” to Granny may be hard, but it can stop you from feeling worse later.
Let’s come back to Ajken’s third point: “Perceived control over behavior.”
As Higgs and co-authors point out, the tendency to conform “will depend on other factors, such as how much attention is paid to the norm, how concerned we are about social acceptance and the presence of other competing norms, such as personal norms and consumption stereotypes.”
How we perceive ourselves compared with others affects how we eat. A person who is confident that they are doing the right thing will more easily take control, and they will perceive less pressure to fit in.
Scientists hypothesize that the greater our awareness of how social norms influence our eating, the less likely we will be to succumb to their pressure.
“If we have a strong habitual or personal norm and are not terribly concerned about how others see us, then we may be resistant to modeling effects,” say Higgs and colleagues.
There is little information about how social norms impact our eating on special occasions, but there is evidence that festivity favors overconsumption.
Researchers now believe that an increased awareness of what underlies our decisions about food consumption can help us to make healthy choices.
Christmas may not be the time to embark on a weight loss diet, but understanding how tradition and peer pressure influence food choices might allow more freedom to make alternative choices, to meet individual needs, and to avoid the overconsumption hangover.
Enjoy the camaraderie, but listen to your body, and learn what “enough” feels like for you.