You Eat What You Are – How Social Norms Affect Diet Choices

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

While you may have heard the saying “you are what you eat,” a new research review in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has found that, in a sense, you actually eat what you are.

For their review, the researchers considered fifteen different studies from eleven journals. Eight of the studies looked at how food norm information affected consumption by participants. Seven other studies examined the effects of food selection norms on how people choose what foods to eat.

The review showed that a person’s dietary choices are largely influenced by their social identity. For example, if participants were told that others in their group were making low-calorie or high-calorie food choices, it considerably increased the odds that participants would make similar choices.

“It appears that in some contexts, conforming to informational eating norms may be a way of reinforcing identity to a social group, which is in line with social identity theory,” said study researcher Eric Robinson, from the University of Liverpool. “By this social identity account, if a person’s sense of self is strongly guided by their identity as a member of their local community and that community is perceived to eat healthily, then that person would be hypothesized to eat healthily in order to maintain a consistent sense of social identity.”

The research review also found that suggesting others ate large meals boosted food consumption by the participants. These effects were seen when participants ate alone or at work – and whether or not they were aware of any bias.

“Norms influence behavior by altering the extent to which an individual perceives the behavior in question to be beneficial to them. Human behavior can be guided by a perceived group norm, even when people have little or no motivation to please other people,” Robinson said. “Given that in some studies the participants did not believe that their behavior was influenced by the informational eating norms, it seems that participants may not have been consciously considering the norm information when making food choices.”

The review authors called for additional studies to be conducted on how people make decisions about food consumption. They also called for research on how public policy and messaging could be modified to encourage healthy choices.

“The evidence reviewed here is consistent with the idea that eating behaviors can be transmitted socially,” Robinson said. “Taking these points into consideration, the findings of the present review may have implications for the development of more effective public health campaigns to promote ‘healthy eating.’ Policies or messages that normalize healthy eating habits or reduce the prevalence of beliefs that lots of people eat unhealthily may have beneficial effects on public health.”

Two studies published in November found that another non-food factor, bowl size, could bias children toward requesting larger portions and eating more food. Previous research has shown that bigger dishes cause adults to eat bigger portions and the new report found the same phenomenon for children – influencing them to eat 52 percent more in one of the new studies.