Why We Eat: Other People

Party timeFor those of you who did a double-take, how could I resist? It’s not only an example of why punctuation matters but another major reason why we hominids chow down (in addition to the hunger and cravings we discussed the last couple of weeks). Ah, the power of social suggestion… Think for a moment about your experience, and compare eating alone to eating with others. Maybe it’s helpful to break it down further. What is it like to eat with your partner? Your kids? (Yup, that one definitely belongs in a category all its own.) Your extended family? Your friends and neighbors? Strangers? Obviously the particular function and arrangement of the gathering matters (e.g. a raucous Super Bowl party versus an intimate lunch with friends versus a formal cocktail hour). All these factors likely influence our choices and even the mindfulness behind our choices. With our own stories in mind, how do they line up with the research on social eating? What’s really behind the influence of others’ presence anyway? Finally, what’s a good Primal take on the pressures and benefits of social eating?

Researchers have delved into questions of both what we’ll eat and how much we’ll put away when we’re with a group as opposed to on our own. Little surprise that studies show we tend to align our choices with those around us, particularly those right in front of us. While many experts have long noted that we eat more in a social setting than by ourselves, we also apparently eat more in larger groups than smaller groups.

The social shift and attunement only gets more striking with further examination. Researchers have even videotaped and counted thousands of individual bites to demonstrate how subjects (women who hadn’t met before but were paired for the purpose of the study) “synchronized” their eating with that of their companions. Add to this tendency toward behavioral mimicry the penchant of some for people pleasing and you’ve got a consistent recipe for overeating, according to one Case Western Reserve University study.

However, the “socially transmittable” effect can go both ways. In a review of 15 food intake studies, researchers found that what participants viewed as “norms” significantly influenced their eating decisions. When subjects thought others were choosing high calorie foods or large amounts of food, they chose high calorie foods for themselves, but the opposite held as well. Those who believed others in the group were eating low calorie choices or smaller portions selected the same for themselves. According to the authors, “It appears that in some contexts, conforming to informational eating norms may be a way of reinforcing identity to a social group.” In other words, we make our eating choices in part based on the “need to solidify our place in our social group.” (I can imagine Grok for his part nodding at this insight.)

While we can talk about the power of public service messages in keeping with our sense of “norms,” we’re also mentally contending with the influence of food marketing. In the face of contradiction (and maybe even not), we’re likely looking to those people around us. Conceptualizing a survey of 28,000 randomly selected households probably doesn’t appeal as naturally to the hominid brain as the visual of what their neighbors are eating. To support this idea comes an Australian study that suggests the diet and exercise habits of our personal contacts influences our own.

What should we take from all this? Obviously, no one is suggesting shutting ourselves in like hermits or hiding in seclusion every time we take in a scrap of food. (Although creating a circle of like-minded Primal friends can certainly help.) That said, the presentations (at least the popular media versions) of this research are often tinged with an odd mix of finger-waving “shame on you” and rib jabbing “yeah, don’t we all?”. I find this contrary messaging typical and annoying.

First off, how about putting away the self-judgment? (Seriously, has this ever helped anyone?) Shaming/self-shaming has nothing in common with the cognitive recognition that a particular choice isn’t going to do you any favors in the long run. That plate of nachos everyone is digging into at the Friday happy hour? It won’t seem like such a good deal at 10:00 tonight. The birthday cake at Aunt Helen’s fete looks lovely but probably would be better preserved as sentimental decor rather than eaten. Nonetheless, the choice isn’t a character issue. It’s a cognitive decision.

With that said, how about trading the sophomoric bonding over transgression for a light-hearted recognition of our literal “monkey see, monkey do” selves? I think the meta-analysis gets at this approach the best. We’re motivated by the prospect of group acceptance. Note: recognition doesn’t mean license. If we accept that we’re wired to be tempted toward these patterns, it’s not a green light to act on the inclination. What’s understandable isn’t necessarily productive. We’re talking about clarity, not carte blanche.

When we’re clear about being wired to mirror the actions of those around us in an often unconscious attempt to gain acceptance, we can choose to be more aware and act differently. What made sense in evolution (and even today in other contexts) doesn’t do as much good over a bag of Doritos and a case of Miller. Maybe it’s a case of studying our own behavior, noticing our own primeval patterns and asking what would YOU tell Grok to do in this scenario if it were him sitting in a restaurant with several appetizers between him and his modern companions? Can we imagine a little humorous but protective compassion to share with our good Primal fellow – and, likewise, ourselves?

Thanks for reading, everyone. What’s your experience (past or present) with social eating? Offer up your feedback and stories, and enjoy the end of your week.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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72 thoughts on “Why We Eat: Other People”

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  1. Ah, the importance of punctuation!

    Note that the title of the article is NOT “Why we eat other people.”

    1. Hey, that’s a very paleo thing to do. I don’t think they discriminated in their food choices as much as we do. As Homer would say, “mmmmmm other people…”

        1. People who eat people, are the luckiest people in the world.

      1. Not so paleo, I’m afraid! Humans, as with most species, rarely eat their own kind and have strong cultural taboos against it.

        The big counter-example is in areas with no domesticated animals or fish, where the human population has sufficient calories to expand, but insufficient protein, like some parts of New Guinea. But they get a lot of cannibalism related diseases.

        So our primal take on the matter should be: we should only even start to consider cannibalism when we’re severely protein deficient.

    2. You knew it was coming after the bug eating article a while back.

    3. Totally did a double take!
      Aparantly grammar would have also been very important to Grok!

      1. Me too! I saw it and thought “Wow, Mark is getting really hard core.”

  2. I gotta say, it wasn’t til my boyfriend and best friend decided to give Primal a try that I was actually able to stick to it! In fact for said friend’s bday party last weekend we had a “fruit cake”- cut up pieces of fresh fruit in the shape of a cake rather than a real cake, and I gotta say I liked it even better!

  3. Looks like peer pressure raises it’s ugly head once again. If we want to be really healthy, who cares what the SAD eaters put down their gullets while we make healthier choices.

  4. This is probably the biggest area I struggle with. Whenever my wife and I go eat out somewhere, it’s like my convictions to eat healthier go right out the window.

    1. I like the idea of foraging when I eat at a restruant or smorgasbord or go to the supermarket. Making the best choices and leaving the poisonous stuff behind like choosing food from toxic plants in the forrest or jungle.

    1. “Sure commas save lives. So do colons.”

      do you mean:

      “sure, commas save lives…” or do your commas possess more personal certainty?

      and yes, it is tough to live without a colon.


      1. Too funny. Yes, I meant… Sure, commas save lives. Thankfully, no lives were at stake!

  5. Clearly Mark uses the squatty potty, because he can properly use his colon.

    Aaaaand I hate myself.

  6. Good timing with this Mark seeing Labor Day has passed and many of us succumbing to the nachos, pizzas, and key-lime pies our beloved friends and family have laid out in front of our faces. To be honest though, I have no problem participating in these occasions when I am in a paleo/low carb mode the rest of the time. I did not get bloated, or get heartburn, or anything else I USED TO ALWAYS GET before my change in lifestyle. I just feel that when my family or friends ask me why I look so fit or never seem to be dragging I can then explain why without being the odd man out in these situations.

  7. As a carb addicted binge eater I can say I use to eat more when I was alone. Like George Thorogood sang, “I drink alone”. One can say that’s very indicative of having a problem.

    1. My spouse was a carb-addicted binge and “closet” eater. My nagging wasn’t well received so I didn’t say much. What really got his attention was when he went to the doctor because he wasn’t feeling well. Blood work was done and he found out he’s pre-diabetic. Nothing like a good scare to help a person get their act together. He isn’t exactly Primal but has been working hard to reduce the starchy carbs, particularly the grain products. He has lost 30 pounds in the past two months.

    2. Same here. I don’t like to eat in front of people, but if I am alone with a pint of ice cream or a box of chocolates, look out!

  8. For me, reading Mark’s Daily Apple, other Paleo blogs, and being a part of a 12-step group has become a sort of social group that reminds me that even when I’m with “normies,” I can make good food choices for myself. My 12-step friends are just a phone call or text away. Daily Primal reading reminds me what my health values are.

    However, in the social situations, it IS sometimes tough. Sometimes, I am able to resist in the moment, but when I come home, I feel like I “deserve” extra food, because I didn’t get what others got, and tend to have munchies. I have to remind myself that extra food is not a gift to myself–it’s not healthy for me, especially being prediabetic.

  9. Since eating paleo I’ve finally started just eating for myself and not other’s expectations or potential judgement. I used to eat things that made me sick to avoid looking strange, avoid embarrassment or avoid people giving me the “eating disorder side-eye” – something thin girls get a lot of often no matter what they eat. I just don’t care anymore. I realized that I’d much rather feel my best than “appear” to eat “normally” and if people think I’m strange, well, they can read my blog and most likely affirm that belief first hand 🙂

    1. I was never one to adopt the SAD, and for sure I was always looked at askance by others when not doing as the Romans do. Always being thin myself, I was also judged and assumed to have an eating disorder. Since going 100% primal 2 to 2.5 years ago, I have come to understand how most people in industrialized cultures ARE disordered eaters. Since I have always been one to march to the beat of my own drum, I am so comfortable living as a primal freak. I embrace it! I will have to check out your blog, Michelle.

      1. That’s basically how I think now! The beat of our own drum is the only one that will make us happy and healthy! Thanks and I hope you do check out the blog 🙂

    2. It’s an interesting point…where does the bracket for “normal” weight fall in the eyes of society? You feel judged over your naturally thin frame and I fell judged by my naturally large one. Who is “just right,” and who’s a big enough a’hole to think they have the right to determine that, anyway? Just sayin’…

  10. Very interesting. Since I have adopted a Primal lifestyle along with IF my wife has lost weight without adopting Primal fully.

  11. Awesome article–I find I have no problem being paleo all week–but on the weekend afternoon when the family comes together to pig out I occassionally grab very non-primal foods almost without a second thought.

    Then I get angry with myself and recharge the will power for the coming week– If I could only avoid those gatherings or get through them unscathed!

    1. Pastor Dave…you’re preaching to the choir here! I fall for the same family stuff too. I’ve learned to steer clear of most of the junk, and I’m doing better at not beating myself up when I occasionally indulge. Hang in there!

      1. Thanks Maureen– Considering my wife eats all sorts of carbs including bread at almost every mean and is a svelte 123lbs at 5’7″– I have mapped out my territory on eating and done well.

        Guess I need to avoid the kitchen table whne family arrives.


        Pastor Dace

  12. lol…sooooooooooo weird! I just saw a tee advertisement on the plane that said:

    Let’s eat Grandma,
    Let’s eat, Grandma
    Commas matter

    I was going to ask Mark if people in days of Grok actually DID eat a tribesman after they had died???

  13. Evolution probably rewarded mimic eating by providing a safeguard towards food items that could at times be questionable. The effect of a single unripe apple would be quite different than a bellyful of them. Likewise spoilage could have been a frequent issue. But if you’re eating what others are eating and in the quantities they’re eating and they’re not suffering ill effects at least presently then the same would likely be true for you as well.

  14. LOVE THIS:
    “With that said, how about trading the sophomoric bonding over transgression for a light-hearted recognition of our literal “monkey see, monkey do” selves? I think the meta-analysis gets at this approach the best. We’re motivated by the prospect of group acceptance. Note: recognition doesn’t mean license. If we accept that we’re wired to be tempted toward these patterns, it’s not a green light to act on the inclination. What’s understandable isn’t necessarily productive. We’re talking about clarity, not carte blanche.”

    That web-validation (webidation?) that we seek and often find can be pretty damaging but it’s amazing how frequently we search for someone who can negativelyl reinforce our bad behaviors, in addition to our good behaviors.

    I especially love the “Sophomoric Bonding Over Transgression” — shorten that to SBOT or BOTs….. well, there you have it in a nutshell.

  15. When I know I’m going to be horribly tempted at an event with food, I try to bring something to eat that is not as bad as the birthday cake or whatever. I bring dark chocolate or something…

    1. I do this, too, usually bring a couple of things (nuts, dessert) in case there isn’t anything I can eat. Can get expensive, but it is worth it, especially if your body really reacts to bad food choices.

  16. “probably doesn’t appeal as naturally to the hominid brain as the visual of what their neighbors are eating”

    Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s carbs.

    1. Modern lingo might be “don’t piss on someone’s strawberries”.

  17. Speaking of evolution… With the evolution of the TV, yes, I am old enough to remember when it did not exist, the men in my life prefer to eat with the TV rather than with anyone else in the house.

    My father would roll it up to the table and we were not allowed to talk during dinner because it would interrupt the program.

    My husband has also always preferred the TV over dinner conversation with me or the family. I vowed that would not happen in my house like it did in my home growing up but obviously I have lost that war. If we have guests, he will turn off the TV but otherwise….mostly not.

    I don’t know what that says about social eating but to me, it seems a sad story.

    I wonder if anyone has done a study on what percentage of people prefer eating with their TV rather than real people. I guess the researcher would have to interview other people in the household since I don’t think most people would admit to it.

    1. Could it be the men in your life are saying something after all?
      Just kidding! I know that was mean. Sorry X 100!! Kidding aside, I heard or read somewhere that men actually talk half as much as women in their lifetimes which could explain their preference for tv. I must admit we’re tv watchers at dinner time as well.

      1. Ha! I do get your joke. Gotta say, it is an easy conclusion to come to but I don’t think the TV preference is personal.

        I wonder if it has something to do with the hunter sitting all day staring into the forest/savannah watching for prey. Sometimes I think we don’t have as much to say about our behavior as we think we do.

    2. I can remember learning to walk by holding myself up against the old black-and-white floor model of TV, and the news was on about the Kennedy assassination.

  18. It’s not just the peer pressure, but sometimes I really WANT “what he/she’s having.” If that’s the case, I’ll make a decision to have some, stopping on items I know won’t leave me in agony. I love nachos! (As long as the chips are gluten free.) Cake/bread items don’t love me so I’m not tempted by those. And if it’s sugar… well, I’m not sure why, but it gives me gas (sorry, TMI) so it’s usually pretty easy for me to avoid that in most forms. (Obviously if I’m in a social setting, I don’t want to be the gassy one!)

  19. My family (both when I was a child and now as a mum) always eat together at the dinner table and I love it. It’s a nice time to set aside computers/iPads/tv’s and just catch up on our day. Orienting our time around a screen would be like having strangers running my life!

  20. Or from the cannibals’ viewpoint:
    “Why, we eat other people!”

    1. Or from the cannabis point of view, “I’m starving, whatever’s all good man… what was I saying”.

  21. Instead of letting peer pressure influence my eating habits, I try to influence others.
    So far that’s worked pretty well. A few friends follow my example after seeing me lose a ton of weight, and my parents have stopped eating wheat and eat less sugar too!

  22. If the people eat a lot of Carbs and have a high sugar content, would they still be on the Primal Eating Plan?

  23. I particularly liked the recognition of the media messaging of shaming/bonding over transgression and Mark’s call for a little protective compassion for ourselves and our fellows. This kind of insight into what real health comprises is what sets this blog apart. Great post.

  24. I’m searching for Mark’s other posts on the topic of how to deal with social eating and I only found: https://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-politely-pass-on-dessert/#axzz3CRjXvlyS and https://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-eat-healthy-dining-out/#axzz3CRjXvlyS

    I’m pretty sure there is at least another one, if someone remembers how it’s titled, I would appreciate it. Thanks!

    I’m right smack in the middle of refusing to go to any restaurants and I’m seriously considering NOT going to family gatherings. It’s actually quite sad. The thing is is I still don’t know what I can eat and what I can’t and I don’t want to muck my experimentations. At last, at my mother in law, I can always asked her what she put in the sauce, at the restaurant, I will never know if there was hidden butter somewhere. Doesn’t help that I’m super picky I guess… sigh.

  25. And another thing about people…they have way too much time on their hands if they are actually reading this whole “non” article and have to comment multiple times about it…
    Just eat what you like when you are hungry. Why does everything have to be over-thought these days? So weird.

  26. Ugh! My enormous Catholic family is always trying to pressure me into eating non-paleo foods no matter how many times I tell them that the answer is no! Sometimes I feel like a broken record! It’s even worse when not-eating somebody’s food is interpreted as a social sub.

  27. Aww shucks I thought this was going to be about the human hair in bread and the other little snippets they have people eating in packaged non primal foods.

  28. This makes sense! The influence of other people has a lot to do with our eating habits! Great read! Thanks man! 🙂

  29. i lost a lot of weight eating Zone and crossfitting/running – then husband went to Paleo – now he is Keto and Intermittently Fasting. I have to cook for eight children 🙂 three times a day, and i’m trying to find ground where we can all eat together. It’s expensive to feed a large family paleo style, but they won’t go 100% keto with dad either (a shot of olive oil for breakfast?)… Partly it’s the health benefits – i want all of us to eat healthier, but i’d rather bake fresh bread for the littles, and know they will eat it than watch my teens skip meals – and mostly, hugely, it’s the social benefits of eating together that i want, but it is really hard when there are a few different diets/timing things happening. I think eating together has too many benefits (chemical and social) to give up on. But i am tired. I’m looking for realistic recipe websites with recipes that i can scale up to feed ten at a time without going broke. Mostly i roast meat and vegetables rubbed with olive oil… anyone else have ideas for me?

  30. This is by far my biggest problem. I enjoy social bonding via food sharing. If I lived in France it would be a non-issue…but I don’t!

  31. Might i suggest a little Chianti and some fava beans?
    Sorry, couldn’t resist 🙂

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