Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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.
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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