THE BLOG

Is Obesity a Socially-Transmitted Disease?

07/15/2014 09:52 am ET | Updated Sep 14, 2014
Noel Hendrickson via Getty Images

With summer in full swing, chances are your social life has also kicked into high gear. As a result, whether you're on a road trip or just want to beat the heat, you're likely spending less time in the kitchen and more time making dinner reservations.

But if you're trying to lose weight, a growing body of research suggests eating too many meals out with friends and family might jeopardize your efforts.

For a study published in the January 2014 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers reviewed 15 earlier studies, seven of which focused on how the choices others made affected what participants chose to eat. If subjects were told that others were eating low-calorie or high-calorie foods, they were more likely to follow that trend. In addition, the amount others ate also reflected how much subjects were likely to eat.

"We're social creatures, and when people are eating together, there is a lot of social mimicry," says Brad Saks, PsyD., a Retrofit weight loss program advisory board member. "I think very often people go into eating situations with intentions to eat well, but ultimately, they make bad choices because they don't want to stand out or make waves."

So how do you dine out without having to let your favorite pants out afterward? The five tips below can help curb the "I'll have what she's having" mentality:

  • Gear up before you head out: We're not talking about wearing special attire to the restaurant (although a waist-cinching belt is never a bad idea, since it keeps your weight-loss goals top of mind). What we mean is that when dining out, it pays to have a plan in place beforehand, which includes knowing what you're going to order. Even if you're traveling and aren't familiar with the restaurants in the area, using menus and online calorie counters from websites like CalorieKing.com and HealthyDiningFinder.com will save you from the powers of persuasion, both on the part of the server (who's likely trained to up-sell cocktails and specials) and your dining companions.
  • Use the P-squared formula: Skip the PB&J and instead opt for P&P (protein-and-produce). "About an hour before heading out, help yourself to apple slices with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, low-fat or nonfat Greek yogurt and a banana, a slice of cheese and an orange, or hummus and radishes," suggests Amy Margulies, lead registered dietitian for RetrofitMe.com. "You may think you're going to spoil your appetite," she says. "But it's really just a light snack to tide you over, since getting to the restaurant, ordering and waiting for the food to arrive all take time."
  • Ban the bread: Before you arrive at the restaurant, decide what you will and won't eat. For instance, "Say to yourself, 'No matter what, I won't have bread out of the basket,'" Saks suggests. "If you feel assertive enough, ask your fellow diners, 'Do you guys mind if we don't get the bread basket?' If you don't want to make waves, skillfully maneuvering the basket to the opposite end of table helps keep it out of reach." Or, if you choose to try a mind-over-matter trick, pretend the basket isn't even on the table.
  • Scour the menu for Ss: Small plates, Steamed dishes and Salads (heavy on greens, light on cheese and dried fruits) are all good bets. Cold soups can also be low in calories, and refreshing. But make sure the soup is made with pureed fruits or vegetables -- not heavy cream. Sparkling water is also an "S" worth ordering at the start of the meal, since it feels festive (particularly when garnished with citrus or a cherry) without the calories of a cocktail. If you're hankering for an alcoholic beverage after a long day at the beach or on the road, yet another "S" -- a Spritzer with white wine -- refreshes but won't weigh you down.
  • Go halfsies: And not just with the bill. Suggest sharing an entree with your dining companion. You can each order your own appetizer. "Starting with a green salad or broth-based soup and sharing a main course will help keep calories in check," says Margulies. Sharing a dessert is also a smart way to go. If you started your meal off with a cocktail, stick to one or two bites of dessert. If not, have several or ask the server for two smaller plates, divvy up the goods and eat your words -- or at least use plenty of them as you eat. "Remind yourself that you are there to enjoy your company," says Margulies. "Keeping your focus on the conversation instead of the French fries is a great way to slow down your eating pace," which has been shown to positively impact weight loss.