Social Factors

Other people influence an individual's eating in a variety of ways. Social facilitation refers to increased intake in the presence of others; this usually occurs when these other people are eating substantial amounts as well (36). More typically, social inhibition of eating is encountered; for example, being observed by noneating others (D. A. Roth, et al., unpublished data, 1998) or eating along with others who eat very little (37) tends to reduce consumption. More generally, people seem to be highly vulnerable to social influences on eating, from indirect pressure (such as conformity to a model or experimental confederate) to more direct influences (such as requests or demands that a certain amount of food be eaten). These social effects are relatively powerful compared with other experimental manipulations of factors affecting eating and lend support to a nonhomeostatic view of eating, at least in the short term. Eating seems to be acutely responsive to social influences that bear little relation to an individual's physiological state or needs. Homeostatic considerations may eventually correct for such short-term deviations; for example, if a person undereats in a public spotlight, he or she may compensate by eating more later in a private setting. Another consideration is the likelihood that such social effects as copying others or not gorging when being watched serve a broader biological survival purpose. It is possible to benefit from others' experiences, and people may look to social guides when the appropriate amount or type of food to be consumed is ambiguous, as it often is. Furthermore, social norms may demand some sort of equity in the distribution of the food supply. Still it is clear that such social factors may have a profound effect on eating, and this effect may act in direct opposition to purely physiological needs and signals. Even 24-hour food-deprived experimental subjects, who ought to eat in response to powerful internal signals, are strongly influenced by the eating patterns of a model (38).

Another sort of social influence on eating occurs when people eat in a particular way to convey a certain impression. This impression-management view of eating focuses on eating as a self-presentational strategy (39). For example, women eat less when they are paired with a man than when paired with another woman, presumably because they wish to convey a more feminine impression to the man, and eating lightly is part of the feminine stereotype. Again, this sort of influence on eating seems to have little to do with the exigencies of internal state.

The Mediterranean Diet Meltdown

The Mediterranean Diet Meltdown

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