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The secret factor dictating your diet

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What’s the most frequently asked question in your office? “Can I have a pay rise?” or “Can I do more overtime?” We’re willing to wager it’s neither. From around 11am every female-centric office buzzes with one loaded question: “What are you having for lunch today?”

Female executives may debate salad vs. sushi, but then a colleague declares it ‘pizza Friday’ and like a pack of well-trained sheep, thoughts turn from lettuce to cheesy dough. Because regardless of what you might think, it’s rarely a sad bank balance or hunger that decides what you’ll eat today - it’s the diet and the size of people around you.

It’s easy to dismiss ‘food mirroring’ as pop psychology but when it comes to what’s on our plate we definitely hold less control than we think; we subconsciously soak up the food choices and habits of those around us.

A recent US survey published in the Journal of Consumer Research filmed 95 women helping themselves to M&Ms. As they reached for the sweets, another test subject - an actress, would appear and grab a handful. In some of the tests the actress dressed normally, she weighed 105 pounds and was a size 6. At other times she wore a fat suit, which padded her to a size 22. Whatever her guise the actress always took five tablespoons of M&Ms or granola. When she was fat, the other subjects took less than her. When she was thin they matched her handful, M for M, or even allowed themselves a little more.

We see a thinner colleague eating and think, 'Wow, if she can eat that, then so can I'

You might think your portion size is dictated by your own self control, but a secret factor is at play. “When people were in the company of an overweight person they intuitively reduced their portion size because they didn’t want to end up the same,” says Gavan Fitzsimmons, the marketing professor behind the research, “whereas when we see a thinner colleague or friend eating we think, “Wow, if she can eat that, then so can I.”

It’s not just the size of our peers either, their foodie habits also have a big influence. In a study by Lenny R Vartanian, assistant professor of psychology at Syracuse University, 122 women watched TV in pairs with mini pizzas available for snacking. When later asked what accounted for the amount they ate, only 2.5% cited the food intake of the other person. In reality, the strongest influence on how much they ate was what on the partner’s plate.

Why are we food sheep?

So why are we seemingly incapable of being solely responsible for our diets? “Because most women are always watching their food intake and their weight, the presence of others is just another version of that watching,” explains psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. “Women are brought up to believe that their bodies and appetites are “dangerous” so this is a form of enforced restraint – all women do it to each other. But it’s superficial because it’s a competition, no-one wins: most women feel lost in relation to food and appetite.” We all think other women have the answers, she adds, which is why we look to them for inspiration. In truth they are probably mirroring too.

Comparison is a basic method by which we make sense of the world

Therapist Oliver James believes food mirroring is yet another way for us to subconsciously compare our ‘normality’ with our peers. “Comparison is a basic method by which we make sense of the world. And if you’re a woman, you’re exposed to a great many images of beautiful and thin women. That has an impact on how you feel about your body and what you eat.”

The bigger your group of friends, the bigger your sticky toffee pudding. A study by psychologist Meredith E Young found that your ‘greed’ is validated if your friends are indulging too. “In groups, women tend to increase the calorific value of the food they choose, compared to eating alone or with men. The bigger the group of women, the more they eat.” In research, women who ate in a group of three each ate about 650 calories, in a group of four it was 800.

On one level it’s normal to check out what other people are doing, to see if you want to copy them or avoid it. But on another level, it’s reductive as it means that we’re never really happy with who we are or what we have. The answer? To either mirror someone with a healthy attitude to food or, better yet, reclaim your own appetite and trust yourself to respond to what your body needs.

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