How our friends can sabotage our efforts to be healthy and how to stop them!
During the past two days, I have observed one of the most frustrating yet common scenarios play out among the women in my office. Sometime during the morning, four of us begin to discuss our lunch plans when one co-worker proudly announces she is on a diet! She refuses to walk across the street to the strip mall for lunch later because she brought a salad. Fast forward to lunch time as the rest of us are about to walk across the street to grab lunch. Suddenly, Ms. Salad now wants us to bring back cupcakes from the new cupcake shop that opened. Hmmmmm Didn’t you just announce you are on a diet? Well, Ms. Salad is on a diet and not about that “junk life” anymore, but a mini cupcake is fine. And do we mind just bringing it back for her?
So now the three of us, who otherwise would have gotten fairly healthy lunches, and who are way too nice friends, are in a cupcake shop to buy cupcakes for Ms. Salad. Before I knew it, 3 (or 5) mini-cupcake slice samples have jumped into my mouth before we even left the store. An almost identical scenario occurs the following day only because I ate a big breakfast, I am not hungry right at lunch time. I am literally forced by my co-workers to go across the street and find something for lunch because I “have to eat.” At the cupcake place (again) I am able to only eat two sample servings but I’m starting to get resentful of being placed in such a high-temptation location to accommodate Ms. Salad. The fact that her salad is filled with tons of blue cheese, fried chicken, pecans and craisins and is not exactly a mix of foods that I would deem healthy is a whole other blog topic!
In thinking about this scenario, I realized that this happens often when I meet my friends for lunch or dinner. I usually arrive at lunch with every intention of continuing to eat high protein, lots of vegetables and some healthy carbs as this is the plan that works best for me. Somehow I often end up eating multiple varieties of fries, a big bowl of creamy pesto chicken pasta or have a milkshake for dessert. I really don’t know how this happens but I totally enjoy every bite! Until a little while after the meal! The same is true of the cupcakes above; I enjoyed every bite until about 15 minutes later when I started to feel really sick from the large amount of sugar. I also have been known to feel enormous guilt and disappointment with myself after eating foods that are very high in sugar or bad fat.
The more I pondered these events, the more I realized that I really have a hard time making healthy choices when eating with friends. Especially if my friends are not making healthy meal choices! In fact, any time I eat socially- with co-workers, friends, neighbors, or my extended family, I tend to make poor food choices. Why is it so hard to eat healthy when I’m eating with others?
The answer to this question is more complex than it seems! There are many variables that come into play when we eat in social situations. Our friends (and significant other) have a substantial influence on our eating habits and our comfort with an improvement in eating habits.
- One big factor that sabotages our food choices when we eat with others is our mentality. We often approach a date with friends (or our significant other) with many positive emotions. It is nice to catch up, or it is relieving to finally get together, or more accurate, it is relieving to get together without the kids! We want to eat without worrying about our “diet” or we have thoughts such as “I deserve this” or “It’s only one meal.” Basically, we have already approached the meal with an excuse or a mindset that we will eat whatever we want.
- Similarly, when we get together with friends or go out with our significant other, we often are going out together for a reason. Maybe it is Jane’s birthday or your anniversary. Maybe it is our monthly girls’ night out. Or maybe we are getting together to because of a negative reason (to provide emotional support to a friend having a hard time or to vent about our frustrations). Again, our mindset and our thoughts about the reason we are meeting, our attitude toward the get together can all really influence our eating. Of course, I can have a few drinks and order dessert, we are celebrating! Of course, I’ll order the fries on the side instead of the veggies, I deserve a good meal today! I am too depressed to eat healthy, pass the loaded nachos! Work is stressful today, I am having that cupcake (or 4)! We can justify unhealthy eating habits for absolutely any reason.
- Our friends (or significant other) are another big factor that impacts our eating in these situations. Either direct or indirect pressure from others to conform to their eating habits is often an incredibly hard factor to overcome. When we are in social situations we frequently compare what we are ordering and how much we are eating to what our companions are ordering/eating. If Jessica orders dessert, she might suggest or strongly suggest you order dessert as well. Even if you refuse dessert, she will likely pressure you to have a few bites of hers! As I noted above, my being too full for lunch caused substantial pressure from Ms. Salad and the others demanding that I needed to eat! Similarly, if our friends order alcoholic drinks, there is often pressure to also order one drink (or more!). Many studies in psychology have proven how strong our need to conform is and how this often occurs outside of our awareness.
- Our friends might directly or subtly sabotage our healthy behaviors! When one friend in a close group of a few suddenly makes a behavior change such as eating healthier/exercising more and now starts losing weight or engaging in new activities, this is threatening to the others in the group. While you might assume your friends would be happy for your or even inspired by you, and this can happen; more often the group tries to maintain homeostasis and balance. The friends may worry your changes will set you apart from them or this can cause greater doubt in the friends. Some friendships are literally built around complaining about being unhealthy/overweight/in pain and if one friend truly stars changing this, there can be a divide in the group. This phenomena can happen very glaringly in romantic relationships when one spouse makes big changes and the other does not; but that is a longer story for another day. Sometimes our friends then sabotage our progress by scheduling get togethers at restaurants or environments they know will be tempting, scheduling get togethers when they know you would usually exercise or engage in activity during that time. Again, usually this isn’t a specified evil plan of let’s keep our friend unhealthy; usually it stems from wanting to maintain the stability and homeostasis of the group.
- This can further occur in friendships that are just between two people. If, for example, two friends decide to both “get healthy” at the same time but one starts having more success than the other, this can lead to feelings of resentment, jealousy, anger, etc which can impact the friendship.
If you are starting to feel disheartened, don’t! There are a number of skills and tricks we can utilize to combat all of these forces and still enjoy eating out with our friends. And no, I am not going to tell you to find new friends!
First, it is important to be aware of the impact others have on your eating. Over the next week or two, pay attention to how your eating habits change when you are in front of your friends, family, coworkers, etc.
Second, if you noticed what I noticed, that your eating habits do become less healthy with others, start to consider why that occurs. Are you too strict in your diet and then finally allow yourself to enjoy which leads to a binge? Are you very influenced by your peers? Are you still on the fence about eating very healthy? While we didn’t elaborate on this one yet, many of us are not fully committed to changing our habits and eating with friends is an excuse.
Three, decide if this is something you want to commit to. Some of you reading this are probably thinking that I am freaking out over a few mini-cupcakes and it’s not big deal. You only live once others say, you can eat what you want. This is absolutely true and I am not telling you that you need to change. But I have found that for me, to feel my best, look my best and not get in my head with food issues, sticking to a very low white sugar/white flour eating plan is really important. So I am renewing my choice to commit to this eating plan
Four, if you commit to changing the influence your friends have, make a plan for yourself one meal at a time. For example, commit to not having cupcakes at lunch anymore and then reward yourself with praise when this occurs. Soak in the feeling of not having guilt and not having remorse after a meal.
Five, find ways to work fitness and activity into your social engagements. This one has proven to be harder than I thought it would be but it is still worth consideration! Go out dancing instead of just meeting for drinks; meet for a gym-class instead of a movie or a meal. Walk outside when you can at lunch and walk past the cupcake place!
Six, consider using the power of social influence in a positive manner. Try to get your friends to commit to healthy changes and hold each other accountable. Another friend recently said to me she would not still be on a common eating accountability plan if her other local friends were not also still on the plan and constantly texting about their daily totals.
And as always, if you still end up eating more than you intended, let that be an isolated event and not a downhill slide. If you would like any help in reducing your pain, managing your weight, or generally getting in better shape, you can also always reach out for help at www.optimallybalanced.com.