THE BLOG

I Get Rye With a Little Help From My Friends

02/24/2015 01:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

When I was in elementary school, lasagna was a prominent part of my life. Two of my childhood friends had families who frequently cooked lasagna. But when we reached middle school, these childhood friends were no longer in my social circle so neither was lasagna. As my social circles changed, so did my food. During college, I hung out with pizza, cheeseburger, tacos, and soda. I didn't meet sushi until medical school. Similarly, medical school brought me in touch with shawarma and spinach pie. Ramen lived around the corner and visited heavily when we were studying for our medical board exams. Those years also brought crabs... the crustaceans, that is.

What you eat may depend heavily on who your friends are. Think your food choices aren't influenced by those around you? Try constructing a food social map that tracks your friends, what they eat, and what you eat over time. How different is what you eat compared to what your friends eat? Do your findings surprise you?
2015-02-23-EatingTogether.jpg

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said, "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with." (Actually, he probably said it more than once.) Similarly, your plate is the average of the people that you eat with. (Unless one of the people owns a buffet, then he or she may contribute to your plate more. If you don't use plates, then you can substitute bowls or whatever else you use to hold your food... but I digress.)

Recently, our Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) held a Symposium that convened experts in social networks and obesity that focused on how social networks affect dietary choices. Kayla de la Haye, Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, emphasized that no child is an island and showed how closely children and their eating preferences are linked. Ross Hammond, a Senior Fellow in Economics and Director of the Center on Social Dynamics & Policy at the Brookings Institute, showed how people tend to follow the average of their peers in their social groups.

So does this mean you should choose your friends based on their food preference? Should "hello, nice to meet and what do you eat" be the first overture at a meeting or party? Should your personal profile say "30-year-old female, likes pastrami?" Should there be more break-up conversations like the following: "you are a good person, make me laugh, have the same values, and match in nearly every way... but this penchant for curly fries just doesn't work for me"?

Should vegetarians and meat eaters never associate like the Capulets and Montagues; the Jets and the Sharks; the Aliens and the Predators; and Cowboys and Eagles fans? Not unless a friend's diet is his or her only redeeming quality.

Instead, the following may be helpful:

1. Awareness of how you are being influenced could help you better establish your own eating identity.
People can be remarkably unaware of what they eat. Many times awareness is half the battle. For instance, if you want to eat more salads but realize that your friends rarely do, it may just take extra effort to maintain salad eating.

2. Enlist your friends' help when trying to change your diet.
Tell your friends that you want to eat differently. If they are true friends, they will respect your choices or even encourage them. In fact, you may be pleasantly surprised by their reactions. They may be inclined to change themselves. You never know until you broach the subject. A group I know always ate at a certain restaurant every Saturday until a new person joined the group and questioned why they were eating at a place with such a limited menu. No one could really provide a reasonable answer. So, questioning this choice changed everything and the group ended up switching to a restaurant that has much greater variety.

3. Avoid situations that will lead you to eating what you do not want to eat.
You can still be friends with someone without eating with him or her. If your resolve is not strong enough and you find yourself eating deep friend cupcakes every time you are with certain friends, then perhaps you should stick to non-eating activities when hanging out with them.

4. Consider forming or joining healthy eating clubs.
Why not harness the positive effects of social influence? Eating clubs abound. Some are unhealthy. Some are weird. Some are healthy. Healthy ones can be fun and beneficial. For example, B'more Healthy Communities for Kids, a GOPC team led by Joel Gittelsohn, a Professor of International Health at Johns Hopkins, and coordinated by Cara Shipley and Sarah Ranstatter have been instituting peer mentoring programs to improve the eating habits of children.

So when you think of food, think of your friends. And when you think of friends think about food. By the way, I wonder what pizza and cheesesteak are doing these days? Haven't talked to them for many years.