The Role of Social Norms In Eating Behaviour

sharma-obesity-family-dinnerEating is often a social activity and there is no doubt that social settings have a tremendous impact on when, what and how we eat.

Now Suzanne Higgs and Jason Thomas from the University of Birmingham, UK, in a paper published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Science review the role of social norms in eating behaviours and discuss how these norms could potentially be targeted to improve eating behaviours.

“We eat differently when we are with other people compared with when we eat alone. Our dietary choices also tend to converge with those of our close social connections. One reason for this is that conforming to the behaviour of others is adaptive and we find it rewarding. Norms of appropriate eating are set by the behaviour of other people, but also shared cultural expectations and environmental cues. We are more likely to follow an eating norm if it is perceived to be relevant based on social comparison. Relevant norms are set by similar others and those with whom we identify… Norm matching involves processes such as synchronisation of eating actions, consumption monitoring and altered food preferences.”

“Social norms may have had a role to play in recent rises in obesity by reinforcing new behaviour patterns associated with overeating and weight gain. For example, increases in average portion size may have created new consumption norms that are diffused through social networks. It might also be that the social context of eating has changed recently in ways that favour overconsumption. For example, more people eating away from home in fast food restaurants with others might be associated with social facilitation of eating.”

If, how and to what extent, eating culture can be changed at a population level through public health and policy interventions will certainly remain the subject of further study.

Frankfurt, Germany