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Eating with friends – a cause of weight gain?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD

I’m sure we all remember dealing with peer-pressure during our youth – most of the stuff making headlines focused on smoking, alcohol consumption, and sexual activity. If your friends started smoking it is reasoned there is a pretty good chance you would also try your hand at it. This type of thinking paved way for our worried parents to warn us against associating with certain friends, as they were “a bad influence.”

It turns out that peer-pressure may also account for the amount of food consumed by kids.

In a previous post, we had discussed a landmark study which described how obesity seems to spread via social networks – that is, having obese friends increases your chances of also becoming obese. In that study it was left unclear how exactly this happened, but it was hypothesized that similar dietary and physical activity patterns were involved.

A new study published ahead of print in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examines the effect of presence of a friend versus an unfamiliar peer on the amount of food consumed by youth.

In the study, the investigators set up a room full of games and toys, as well as individual bowls of snacks for each child (carrots, grapes, chips, cookies). Twenty three overweight and 42 normal weight youth (aged 9-15 years) were allowed to play and eat with either a friend of their choice (of the same sex) or an unfamiliar peer for a duration of 45 mins. After the 45 minute period of play/eating, the amount of food consumed by each child was assessed.

Here is what the authors found:

1. In the company of a close friend, youth consumed significantly more calories during the 45 minute session than in the company of an unfamiliar peer. Specifically, when playing with a friend, a total of 500 kcals were consumed, in contrast to the 300 kcals consumed in the presence of an unfamiliar play partner.

2. Regardless of friendship status, overweight youth ate more food when in the presence of another overweight youth than in the presence of a normal weight youth.

3. Lastly, the effects of familiarity (friend vs. unfamiliar peer) and weight status of the play partner (overweight vs. normal weight) on the caloric intake of a youth are additive – such that an overweight child in the company of his/her overweight friend ate the most food during the testing session, in comparison to all other conditions.

Why does this occur?

The authors speculate that either friends act as “permission givers” and facilitate an increased caloric intake, or alternatively that strangers thwart caloric intake by making the child self-conscious among making a good impression on the unfamiliar peer.

Every time I come across such a study, pointing to yet another potential cause of caloric imbalance, I come to realize how the notion of "eating less and moving more" is painfully myopic.


Peter


Salvy, S., Howard, M., Read, M., & Mele, E. (2009). The presence of friends increases food intake in youth American Journal of Clinical Nutrition DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27658

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6 Response to "Eating with friends – a cause of weight gain?"

  1. Richard Eis Said,

    It's not that eating less and moving more doesn't work in theory. It's just that we are a lazy, short-sighted, greedy and stupid species generally.

    Posted on June 25, 2009 at 3:27 AM

     
  2. docvini Said,

    It could also be that the children ate less with strangers because they were more distracted by the novel stimuli of the unfamiliar. They were busy getting to know the other child and attending to all that goes with being around a new person to focus on the food as much.

    Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez

    Posted on June 25, 2009 at 7:10 AM

     
  3. Kate Porter Said,

    I find this especially interesting because, if the explanation is similar to what you suggest, it indicates that being overweight and eating too much are sensitive subjects even to kids this young. It's interesting to me that that phenomenon appears so young--I would expect to see something like that in older teens or adults (who, at least in my assumption, tend to be more aware of such things) than in younger kids. Talk about growing up earlier!

    Posted on June 25, 2009 at 9:48 AM

     
  4. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    @ Richard Eis

    The problem is that "eating less and moving more" ONLY works in theory, and rarely does such advice lead to significant behaviour change or weight loss in reality.

    @docvini

    Very plausible alternate explanation for the findings - which was not explored by the authors.

    @Kate Porter

    Recall that the ages of the youth involved in the study ranged from 9-15, so they weren't all that young.

    However, previous studies have shown that weight stigma is already present among kids aged 3-5years. Also, another study showed that kids aged 10-11 "liked" children with disabilities, amputations, and deformities, more than they liked overweight children - now that is a scary finding!

    Posted on June 25, 2009 at 10:23 AM

     
  5. Richard Eis Said,

    -rarely does such advice lead to significant behaviour change-

    Give advice and it will most likely be ignored. Pretty much what i was saying. We know what to do, we just don't know how to do it for the majority.

    Posted on June 26, 2009 at 10:59 AM

     
  6. Anonymous Said,

    "However, previous studies have shown that weight stigma is already present among kids aged 3-5years. Also, another study showed that kids aged 10-11 "liked" children with disabilities, amputations, and deformities, more than they liked overweight children - now that is a scary finding!"

    That's not any surprise to me at all. Growing up as the fat kid I knew that I was the least desirable person to have as a friend.

    I do watch what I eat around people too. It feels like everyone is always watching and judging every morsel I put in my mouth. Eating fast food because I don't have time to go home before class? "She must eat that crap all the time, which is why she's so fat." Grabbing a snack on the way home because I didn't have time for lunch? "Look at her, she eats constantly, she can't even wait for dinner." Bringing a healthy lunch to work? "She must have started a new diet." Yeah, it's much easier to just not eat in front of other people.

    Posted on June 26, 2009 at 10:20 PM

     

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.

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