Eating together: effects of the social context of eating on appetite

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: School of Psychology

Abstract

Much progress has been made recently in identifying aspects of our current eating environment that may promote overconsumption of food and result in a level of obesity that is damaging to health. For example, some evidence suggests that the recent trend towards food products being available in large portion sizes and the omnipresence of tasty food cues in the environment may explain why some people are prone to eating even when they are not in a state of nutritional need. However, a neglected factor in theories of the drivers of obesity is the social context in which eating occurs. While it has been established that eating in a group of friends or family increases consumption at that meal by around 70%, there has been no investigation to date of whether this "social facilitation" of eating results in increased cumulative energy intake over time. Moreover, very little is known about why people tend to eat more when eating with others than when eating alone. The studies proposed here will address these important gaps in the literature by conducting the first systematic examination of the mechanisms that underlie social facilitation of eating and assessing whether these effects are compensated for over time. First, we will establish whether the increase in intake that occurs during a meal eaten with others is compensated for by later reducing intake to balance energy intake. Second, we will conduct a series of studies using laboratory based experimental designs and online survey methods to test the novel hypotheses that social facilitation of eating is explained by 1) the effects of social context on fundamental psychobiological aspects of appetite control and 2) the effects of social context on cognitive decision making that takes place before a meal. By adopting a biopsychosocial approach to understand social eating effects, the present programme of research addresses an ESRC priority (ESRC research investment: biosocial research) and comes under the ESRC strategic priority on health and wellbeing. The results will contribute to theory development in appetite research and to the development of policies regarding advice on healthy eating environments. Overall the results of the proposed studies will enhance understanding of the external drivers of overconsumption and provide novel data on how overeating in social contexts may be avoided.

Planned Impact

The results of this project will be of interest to health professionals and policy makers, the food industry and weight management support groups as well as the general public. Economic and societal impacts include adding to the knowledge base on factors that influence eating behaviour that could later lead to improvements in health and well-being. In particular, the project will provide an evidence base for the development of strategies and advice that can prevent overeating in social situations. Such advice would enable families and other social groups to maintain healthy eating practices while continuing to benefit from social exchanges at mealtimes. In particular, we will work with our project partner Weight Watchers to explore opportunities for translation of the findings. Given the health costs associated with overeating and weight gain it is important to explore new avenues for improving the Nation's diet through developing comprehensive models of appetite control that have implications for advice on diet and eating practices. Wide dissemination of the results (see pathways to impact plan) will ensure that a range of stakeholders are reached and beneficiaries of this project are not be limited to those in the UK. Engagement with the public will enhance understanding of the complexities of appetite control and interactions with the public will be important for improving the quality of research and its impact. It will also ensure wide communication of the results and inspire the next generation of researchers. The work will also contribute to the training of a skilled researcher with wide knowledge and expertise in a range of different experimental approaches to the study of eating behaviour and experience of working in industry.

Publications

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Ruddock HK (2019) A systematic review and meta-analysis of the social facilitation of eating. in The American journal of clinical nutrition

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Higgs S (2019) Context

 
Description We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis on the social facilitation of eating that suggested eating with others increases food intake relative to eating alone, and this is moderated by the familiarity of co-eaters. Our review identified potential mechanisms for social facilitation of eating and highlighted the need for further research to establish mediating factors. Finally, we proposed a new theoretical framework in which we suggest that the social facilitation of eating has evolved as an efficient evolutionary adaptation.
Exploitation Route There are implications for advice on healthy eating
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Healthcare

 
Description Partnership with WeightWatchers 
Organisation Weight Watchers International
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Access to research findings.
Collaborator Contribution WeightWatchers is a member of the research steering group
Impact none yet
Start Year 2018
 
Description Association for Science Education presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I gave a presentation to School teachers as part of the Association for Science Education Annual Conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description ESRC estival of Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We had an evening event in a pub (The Botanist) as part of the ESRC Festival of Science where we engaged the public in presentations, quiz's, activities and Q and A about the psychology of eating. It was a ticketed event that was sold out.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Interview for BBC 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was interviewed for a piece on BBC futures on social influences on eating
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190520-how-your-friends-change-your-habits---for-better-and-worse
 
Description Interview for National newspaper 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An interview for the Daily Mail led to an article being published on our review: Ruddock, H. K., Brunstrom, J. M., Vartanian, L. R., & Higgs, S. (2019). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the social facilitation of eating. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 110(4), 842-861.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Interview posted on University Facebook page 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Post doctoral researcher Helen Ruddock was interviewed about her research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.facebook.com/unibirmingham/videos/735378113596048/
 
Description Newspaper article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was interviewed by the Guardian for a piece on eating alone versus eating socially.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/06/table-for-one-how-eating-alone-changing-our-die...
 
Description Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Suzanne Higgs was interviewed about her research for the award winning water cooler neuroscience podcast
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://watercoolerneuroscience.co.uk/podcast/s1-ep4-suzanne-higgs-social-vs-personal-appetites
 
Description Postgraduate workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Weight management and appetite - a transferable skills workshop. Key note speaker.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Presentation at FoodMatters live event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation on influences on eating behavior at a congress open to the public (FoodMatters live)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.foodmatterslive.com/
 
Description Press release 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Press release of our systematic review was picked up by multiple outlets and featured on the university of Birmingham web site.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191004105637.htm
 
Description Web site commentary 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We wrote a comment on a classic paper for a society web site. The primary purpose is to provide students, postdocs and colleagues with papers that that are considered to be critical building blocks of the field. The "classics" provide important historical context, both on the concepts upon which their work and hypotheses were based and on the results and standards of interpretation that the authors considered critical. The commentaries provide perspectives linking the classics to current work and ongoing issues.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.ssib.org/web/classics.php
 
Description Youtube video 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We created a youtube video on the social facilitation of eating
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J00j2FAmY58&feature=youtu.be
 
Description podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We created podcasts of interviews with the lead researchers/students on the project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://eatingbehaviourrg.wordpress.com/research-podcasts/