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Healthy Eating: 3 Ways To Overcome Social Eating Temptations

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By Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D. for Shape.com

I wrote previously about a new national poll in ShopSmart magazine, which surveyed women about their biggest barriers to healthy eating. In it, I addressed the cost of healthy food, the number one obstacle cited, and today's post relates to the number two hurdle named: social temptations. When it comes to social eating, the bad news is it can be one of the strongest negative influences on the way we eat. But, there are effective ways to tackle it.

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When I first started out in private practice, I had completed my bachelor's and master's degrees in nutrition science. For the most part, my training involved working with people one-on-one but I often found that no matter how motivated my clients were in my office, their success was largely tied to their relationships, jobs, and home environments. That's why I went back to school again to earn a second master's degree in public health, with an emphasis in community and family health. That training helped me relate to my clients in a big picture way but it also showed me just how complex behavior change really is.

One recent study in overweight teens found that friends who eat together eat more food than those paired with strangers, and friends give each other "permission" to overeat. Another Dutch study found that when two women eat together, one tends to mimic the other's pace. When one woman's fork moved towards her mouth, the other was likely to take a bite within five seconds. And in a 15,000 person, 12 country survey, the respondents revealed that they feel their friends and family members bear as much responsibility for their personal health as their doctors and other health care providers.

So how can you use this research to your advantage? Here are three strategies to put into action:

Consciously Become The Pacesetter
The next time you eat with a friend or a group, slow down, put your fork down between bites and monitor the effect. Taking the lead on speed can help you and your dining companions avert overeating, and feel more satisfied with smaller portions.

Break The "Eatertainment" Pattern
Eating as something to do, or just for fun, can be a tough habit to break. I've had clients with mountains of motivation continue to take in hundreds of surplus calories each week because the way they spend time with the people they love revolves around food. If this sounds familiar it may be time for "the talk." I'm referring to broaching the subject with friends and family and asking them to give some new together-time routines a try. This isn't easy, because changing your patterns can disrupt the comfort zone of a relationship but it can also result in some pretty awesome outcomes. I've had clients happily transition from spending weekends eating and drinking to enjoying brand new adventures from dance classes or indoor rock-climbing to disco bowling. If your friends and family are open to mixing it up a bit, you could wind up having a lot more fun and saving tons of excess calories.

Turn To The Web For Support
If your friends and family are reluctant to change, hop online for support. I love that my Facebook fan page feels like a little community where people cheer each other on, share tips, tricks, and recipes, make each other laugh, and bond over the camaraderie of working toward similar goals. When you have that, even from online "friends" you'll probably never meet, it can give you the confidence and motivation you need to stay on track.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

Flickr photo by Sam Beebe

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