Social eating poses serious problems for college students

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Mindy Minto wipes pizza sauce off her son Charlie’s shoulder during dinner one night. Studies have shown that eating at home with the family lessens a child's risk of obesity later on in life.

Photo Credit: Shannon Kintner | Daily Texan Staff

People use eating as a way to socialize — going out to dinner with friends, snacking while watching a movie, eating junk food during “girls’ night.” However, social eating can have serious effects on the way we view food and nutrition, leading to overeating, obesity, malnutrition and other health problems. Even when a person attempts to change his or her eating habits for the better, the social aspect of eating can cause that person to feel isolated and unable to participate in many group activities, like eating with friends in the dining hall or a restaurant while trying to diet.  This may make maintaining those healthy habits difficult.

One study (Pliner et al., 2007) found that social pressures have a powerful effect on how we eat. According to the researchers, individuals will often eat the same amount as those around them, especially when they are in a small group. This finding implies that when we eat, it is not as simple as eating until we feel full. Rather, we might under-eat or overeat depending on the company we are in. This suggests that we may eat similar types of food to those around us, making others’ unhealthy choices our own. 

According to another study (Delormier et al., 2009), although public health organizations link obesity trends to obesity-causing environments and social trends that support overeating and little physical activity, most of the obesity and nutrition education today focuses on changing eating and exercise habits on an individual level. As a result, this type of education has limited success, and the obesity epidemic continues to grow.  In short, for most people it is very difficult, if not impossible, to improve their health while those in their social circle continue unhealthy habits. 

For college students, maintaining good eating habits is even more of a challenge. Jamie Davis, an asssistant professor in the School of Human Ecology remarked that family eating is inversely related to obesity trends, meaning that eating as a family could have a positive effect on what and how people eat. However, most college students are, for the first time, suddenly faced with the need to learn how to eat without the family unit. Students therefore choose either to eat by themselves or, more likely, with fellow students, often at restaurants or on-campus dining. Eating, in these circumstances, turns into a social event, which Davis says results in unfocused eaters, or “grazers,” who end up eating larger or multiple portions. This type of overeating can often be coupled with malnutrition, in which eaters ingest too many calories, but not enough essential vitamins and minerals.  

So, who should take responsibility for the poor state of nutrition on the college campus: the individual students themselves or the groups of students who make collective bad decisions? 

 In reality, though each student is a decision-making adult who ultimately makes the choice of how to eat, each student is also a human living in a social environment where his or her decisions are, consciously or not, affected by the decisions of friends and peers.  Meanwhile, the effects of social eating remain a factor in the rising rates of obesity and nutrition-related illness.  The solution, then, is to ignore neither problem: Educators must take care to teach individuals about the value of good nutrition, while businesses and institutions that work to feed groups of students should strive to incentivize collective good choices, encouraging a culture where gathering around to share a salad is as prized as gathering around a grease-laden pizza. 

Franklin is a Plan II, linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior from Sugar Land. Follow Franklin on Twitter @franklin_lauren.