When the doctor tells us to get on the scale at the beginning of a check-up, a cascade of emotions can rise up, depending on how weight-conscious we are and how well things are going with regard to our goals. The numbers do not lie, but they tell only part of the story about what drives those numbers up or down. When taking the measure of our BMI or exploring ways to improve it, the behavior patterns of people close to us is either part of the problem or part of the plan.
"Food and love are inexorably linked, thanks to a complex hormonal reaction that affects our emotional attachments to loved ones -- and our need for food," according to The Huffington Post. Intimate relationships with partners and family members can eiher promote or discourage healthy eating, because "weight gain includes an element of social contagion. If one spouse has poor eating habits, such as a lack of portion control or a preference for unhealthy foods, that may extend to the other spouse." We are influenced by the eating habits of others in subtle, often not-fully-conscious ways, right down to the size of bites we take. "Numerous studies have shown that people adjust their intake directly to that of their eating companions," writes researchers published in the journal PLOS One. We tend to eat more when others eat more, and less when others inhibit intake. To test the idea that this is caused by a literal mimicry of other people - a kind of mirroring effect that takes place below the level of consciousness - the study observed dyads of young females having an evening meal in real time. "For each dyad, the total number of bites and the exact time at which each person took a bite were coded. It was found that both women mimicked each other's eating behavior and were more likely to take a bite of their meal in congruence with their eating companion rather than eating at their own pace."
If the company of strangers can influence eating patterns in this way, the eating habits of people close to us, whose boundaries can bump uncomfortably close to ours and just as often cross them, are even more powerful and more subtle in their effects. Living with a person who eats as a response to emotional distress, for example, can indirectly but effectively induce some degree of over-eating even if it is not related to emotion upsets. A 2010 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, asked moms with pre-school-age children "to rate their own emotional-eating habits, then devised an activity during which snacks would be offered to the children. The preschoolers whose moms reported regulating their feelings with food ate more snacks than did the other children."
Interpersonal relationships can make or break our resolve to eat foods that are naturally conducive to a healthy weight, but all it takes is some self-awareness to break the negative patterns we may unconsciously pick up from others. And the contagion effect goes both ways. If we become more mindful of the choices and habits that keep us healthy we become an influence to others around us. Some guidelines for changing our own - and in turn those with whom we spend the most time - eating patterns for maximum health:
Eat at home. Findings published in the July 2011 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people tend to make better choices when eating at home. The study suggests that "people who are in a good mood at home tend to prepare healthier meals -- and feel more emotionally rewarded after eating them. That cycle of positive reinforcement was more pronounced at home than elsewhere."
Name and talk about emotions that cause distress. Everyone struggles with emotional upsets and food is an immediate and reliable comfort that can rapidly dial down stress. The problem is that when the stress response kicks in we tend to choose sugary, crispy, and carbo-rich foods, which we are eating at the precise moment the body is automatically slowing down our metabolism. This leads to cravings and weight gain, a cycle that can only be interrupted by dealing with the emotional stress directly. An intervention funded and researched by the National Institutes of Health that incorporates skills that directly address the emotional eating helped participants lose weight and change their relationship with eating.
Cultivate and communicate positive emotions in close relationships. An atmosphere of support and good will worth makes all those meals we eat with loved ones more fun, And more filling.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant, creative arts therapist and writer/performer.