With Whom You Eat May Affect How Much You Weigh

Two weeks ago we were dinner guests at an expensive steak restaurant. Our hosts, who were celebrating their anniversary, urged their guests to order the restaurant’s specialty steak: twenty-four ounces of aged beef.  Everyone, except for another guest and I, complied (we both ordered fish.) Many side dishes were ordered by the hosts to be passed around family style: a dish of fried potatoes oozing butter, asparagus coated with a creamy sauce, and broccoli covered with melted cheese. Despite protests of feeling stuffed, we were told to indulge in dessert: soup bowls of creampuffs filled with ice cream and drenched in hot fudge sauce.

As we waddled home I remarked that it was a good thing we didn’t eat like this more than once a year, if that. Working off all those calories would take hours at the gym, and a frugal meal plan for a few days.  My husband agreed. “I really didn’t want to order such a large piece of meat but since our hosts were so insistent, and everyone else was ordering it, I felt that I should, too. And I wasn’t hungry for dessert, but it was hard to refuse. “

Last week we experienced an opposite social pressure on how we should eat.  Invited to a buffet dinner following a lecture at a local museum, we were offered poached salmon, baked chicken, marble-size boiled potatoes, salad and rolls. No butter was served. The plates tiny, somewhat smaller than salad plates, and once a lettuce leaf, tomato slice, and a minute piece of fish or chicken was placed on it, there was barely room for one potato.  No dessert was available or, if it was, it was hidden in a remote part of the dining area. As one of the guests with whom we sat remarked, “I guess I don’t have to worry about eating too much at this meal!“

These two eating experiences confirm anecdotally what many studies have shown. Social eating can influence the amount and type of food we consume.

Indeed, web sites focused on helping dieters stay motivated suggest choosing eating companions who reinforce healthy, calorie-conscious food choices.  Eating with friends at a restaurant that offers low-fat, non-fried foods, including a variety of whole-grain and vegetable options, makes it so much easier to stay on a diet than eating at a place where the food is batter-coated, or sauced with cheese.  Conversely, going with others to a massive brunch buffet, or a clam shack known for its tower of fried clams, coleslaw drowning in mayonnaise, and unlimited French fries makes it extremely hard for the dieter to say no to these temptations or, in some cases, such as the clam shack, even find something diet-worthy to order.

However, it is not necessary to become an “eating hermit” in order to lose weight. Many restaurants post their menus on their web sites so it is possible for the weight or health conscious to see ahead of time whether there are calorically appropriate meal options. Admittedly, it is difficult to tell friends or co-workers that you prefer not eating at a particular place because you won’t find anything to eat (like at a fried clam shack) that is appropriate for your diet. But these days it may be easier to do so as now that so many have specific food restrictions.  Friends or family, one hopes, would not invite a Moslem or kosher Jewish guest to a barbecue place featuring pork, or suggest going out for pizza with someone who has gluten sensitivity. Since it would be fitting to suggest an alternative restaurant for someone who can’t eat gluten or pork, it is appropriate to identify a restaurant with choices compatible with the caloric needs of someone on a diet or trying not to gain weight.

A little discussed but annoying problem of social eating is the nosy invasiveness of eating companions who feel they have the right to make remarks about the type and amount of food you are eating. Too often comments will be made about portion size: “Is that all you are eating?” or lack of fattening ingredients: “That salad looks inedible without any salad dressing!” or a rejection of dessert: “You never eat it, do you?”  People who would never urge someone in alcohol recovery to “just have one drink” will cajole a fellow dinner who is attempting not to gain weight to “C’mon! Enjoy some of that chocolate cake; it won’t kill you!” It is rarely possible to respond by pointing out the rudeness of the remarks or offering unflattering comments about the speaker’s size or eating habits. Avoidance and seeking out like-minded eaters is probably the only solution.

And that may not be so easy anymore, because the world is getting fatter. A recent report found that 10% of the world’s population is now obese. One consequence is a global eating environment where dishes containing excessively fattening ingredients or mega-sized portions are becoming normative. The gigantic, but apparently typical portions of steak we encountered at the anniversary party are likely to become more common than the meager portions of the museum dinner.  If we succumb to accepting that we are expected to eat portion sizes inappropriate for healthy calorie intake, then we risk increasing our own size a few pounds every year until we are overweight, or even obese. And even worse, if everyone around us is larger than they should be and consuming portions much larger than they should be eating, who will notice?

Obviously, it is rarely possible to restrict the people with whom you eat to those who will reinforce your weight and heath goals. But it is important to resist the pressure of fellow diners to eat promiscuously, to choose food without heed for calories or saturated fat or sugar that have negative effects on health. It is important to realize that after the meal is over, only you will be standing on the scale.

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