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Social Eating Can Change How Much You Eat

One of my favorite podcasts recently mentioned a topic that seems quite appropriate for the holiday season: the social facilitation of eating.


The podcast is called Creature Feature, and it normally talks about interesting aspects of the animal world. This episode, though, took a rather unusual approach. The host and guest looked at the trailer for the new Garfield movie coming out in 2024 and tried to tie the behavior in the trailer to actual animal behavior (though not necessarily cat behavior).


The movie appears to be Garfield’s origin story, and the scene that caught my attention was when Jon was sitting by himself in an Italian restaurant, clearly feeling lonely compared to the families around him. Jon hadn’t even eaten any of his pizza, and then he noticed a kitten – Garfield – sitting outside the window.


Jon let the kitten in, which seemed to make both of them quite happy. Then Garfield proceeded to devour the entire pizza, which made the host of the podcast wonder if Jon keeps Garfield at least in part for the social facilitation of eating.


What is the social facilitation of eating?

The basic definition of the social facilitation of eating is that we eat more around others than we do alone.


This behavior was first noticed in animals, initially with a chicken. The researcher let one chicken eat as much as it wanted until it had its fill. Then the researcher brought in a second chicken, this one hungry. The second chicken started eating – and then the first chicken began eating again, even though it had just filled up. The same type of behavior has since been seen in a range of animals, from fish to primates.


As a side note, I’m not sure this is quite the same thing, but I’ve noticed that my cat Pangea tends to prefer having company while eating, and I think she eats more when I’m around than she would if I were gone a lot of the time. (Although that’s just a guess.)


At first, scientists thought we humans would behave differently, that we were special somehow. But we are, after all, animals, and other studies have shown that people also tend to eat more when with others.


I’d add that I don’t think the researchers factored in diet behavior or the effects of earlier dieting. From my own experience, when I trying to diet or was worried about having others see me eat, I ate quite a bit more when I was alone than in front of others because I didn’t want to be judged for eating too much. But, that probably wouldn’t have been my behavior had I never gone the diet route.


Social eating for holidays

I was thinking about how this extra eating might be an even bigger issue during the holidays.


One reason is that it’s almost expected for people to eat a lot during the holidays. These are special days, after all, maybe with foods you only have once or twice a year. If you don’t have it now, you won’t get a chance for a long time.


Then there’s the outright social pressure. Unlike chickens, you may have relatives who will encourage you to keep eating and may even act insulted or hurt if you don’t keep eating. Even if you’re full, you may find yourself going back for another plate to appease a loved one.


And, of course, it can be very difficult to stay mindful when having a holiday meal. You could be catching up with people you rarely see, kids and pets might be running around, and there’s always the possibility of an argument breaking out about politics or family issues or something else. It’s hardly conducive to paying a lot of attention to your eating.


Tips for holiday meals

If you’d prefer not to overeat at your next holiday meal – or not overeat by as much – here are some tips that may help you avoid succumbing to the social facilitation of eating:

  • Remind yourself that it’s natural to eat more when with other people, but you’re setting an intention to be more mindful.

  • At the meal, start with smaller portions so you can have at least some of everything you want and keep your options open in case you want more of something.

  • Don’t try to keep up with others. If you see someone go back for their third plate of food, remember that you’re not obligated to eat as much as them. You can, but if you want another serving, try to make it a conscious decision.

  • Plan to bring home leftovers so if a relative encourages you to eat more, you can explain that you’re too full now but would be happy to take some home. (I realize this may not be a good enough excuse for some people, but maybe if you try enough times it will stick.)

  • If tensions get high, you could step away from the table for a bit. See if you can find a spot where you can relax, at least somewhat, and you may feel less compelled to reach for food.

  • And finally, when you’re eating, try to pay enough attention so you can enjoy the food.


Alternatively, you may decide that you’re okay with overeating and don’t want to worry about it. If that’s the case, it could still help to think about how much you want to overeat so you don’t get sick. But it’s up to you either way. The real goal is to make it a choice and not an automatic reaction.


You don’t have to eat more socially

Even though we seem to naturally eat more when we’re around other people, that doesn’t mean you have to do that. Being aware of this behavior can help you spot it in yourself and allow you to make different decisions.


And whether you decide to go with the social eating flow or try not to be influenced by the eating of others, I hope that you have some enjoyable holiday meals coming up, with plenty of food, friends, and family.


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