Are Your Family and Friends Making You Fat?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

It’s holiday time, which means celebrating with family and friends is at the top of the list. So we loosen up and let loose, and I’m not just talking about our belts. And that can be dangerous for our diets.

According to a recent review article appearing in the journal “Nutrition,” the more people present while dining, the greater the quantity of food each one consumed, with a caloric increase of as much as 76 percent per person when there were seven or more people at the table. Additionally, portions eaten with others were 44 percent larger and contained more calories than those eaten alone. This increased eating occurred regardless of the time of day or whether it was a meal or a snack.

“The larger the group and the better we know you, the more we eat,” says John M. de Castro, Ph.D., chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of the review.

The reason? “We spend more time at the table with larger groups where we enjoy the company,” says de Castro. So, to avoid packing on the pounds in the company of those you hold near and dear — here are a few tips:

If you’re having the party or gathering in your home, why not suggest leaving the dinner table right after the meal is finished and going to a “more comfortable” sitting area? Or, if you’re a guest, perhaps you can suggest this to your host before the event. An alternative would be to clear the dishes as soon as everyone has finished eating, or — if you really want to get fancy — offer hot napkins so people can wash their hands — clear the table while they’re preoccupied, and then serve coffee and dessert (hopefully fruit).

If you don’t want to leave the table but want to make sure you don’t eat any more, put your napkin on your plate or lay your silverware across it as a reminder that you’re done.

“Parties and holidays increase stress,” says Amy Gorin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School, Providence, R.I. She recommends coming up with a plan such as losing a bit of weight before the holidays to create a buffer zone, or simply taking some “alone time” to relax before big events.

Using smaller plates and bowls will help both you and your guests with portion control. The smaller they are, the less food you are likely to consume.

All of us know someone in the family or among our friends who is a food pusher. These are the people who are always telling you that you look great, and in fact, “You’re getting too thin.” “How can one bite hurt?” they ask. Or, “It’s a birthday party!” or “You have to at least have a taste.” Or perhaps they keep telling you, “You’re fine just the way you are,” and “You don’t need to lose weight.”

Your so-called “support group” may not want to see you “suffer” through yet another diet. But they may also be trying to sabotage you because they are jealous of your newfound goals or because they feel guilty about not having made the same choice to pursue a healthier lifestyle. “Your family and friends could be hurting your best intentions to lose and control your weight,” says Gorin.

Try to have an answer ready for these diet saboteurs. Mentally rehearse a few key phrases like, “Oh, no thanks. I couldn’t eat another thing.” Or even try the truth: “I’m dieting, and eating that piece of cake will throw me completely off track.”

Don’t bring big plates of food to the table. Instead, try serving each guest and then taking the rest of the food back to the kitchen. If you’re the host, put the leftovers in the fridge as soon as you finish serving the meal, leaving a bit out for seconds. Don’t leave it on the stove, and definitely don’t bring it to the table. Also, keep water, unsweetened iced tea or diet soda on the table — drinking will fill you up or at least keep your mouth occupied when you’re not eating.

“We also tend to drink more alcohol when we are in large familiar groups,” says de Castro. This presents two problems. First, we tend to eat a lot more if we are drinking liquor because we let our guards down. And second, we generally don’t think about the calories we drink when we’re eating a large meal — but they can add up to as many as 600 calories for just three drinks.

Sit near the healthiest people in the room. We tend to model the behavior of those around us. So, if you’re around people who tend to eat a lot of unhealthy foods, be extra careful. Also be wary of friends and family members who can eat whatever they want and not gain weight — eating with them can create a desire to overindulge.

Do you feel social pressure when eating with certain groups of family and friends? You get to a party and your host is serving appetizers. You may not even be hungry, but you eat “just because” the food is right in front of you and you don’t want to make the host or others feel bad. Food is what we use to “fit in,” to keep ourselves entertained, to calm anxiety or just to seem polite. How many times have you heard a family member or friend tell you that you’ll spoil the party if you don’t partake in the food festivities, or that it’s bad luck not to have at least a taste? Keep your goals and desire to lose weight clear to avoid being sidetracked.

Study after study has shown that solid family and social networks can positively influence your health, but, says Gorin, recent research also shows that your family’s support is most effective when they are actually involved in losing weight with you. So get them to join in and eat healthier.

Eat before you go out to a major event, holiday party, or dinner — stuff yourself with healthy, low-calorie foods so it will be easier for you to eat less of the “bad” stuff.

If your gathering will be in a restaurant, offer to pick the place yourself. Do some homework in advance and come up with a few healthier options, including a variety of cuisines.

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