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Eating Behavior May Be Shaped by Who You Eat With

New Study Shows How People Mimic Those With Whom They Eat

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 2, 2012 -- How you eat may depend on who you're eating with, according to a study published in the online journal PLoS ONE.

Diners who eat together, the authors report, tend to mirror each other, taking bites of food at the same time. They call it behavioral mimicry, or "the process in which a person unwittingly imitates the behavior of another person."

And they conclude that such insights have "significant implications for one's health and well-being."

You Eat, I Eat

The researchers, most of them based at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, studied the eating patterns of 70 pairs of college-age women as they dined together in a university lab, which had been arranged to resemble a real bar. Each pair was served a full meal. They had 20 minutes in which to eat. One of the women in each pair knew in advance how much food she would be served, but neither woman was told how much to eat.

The timing of each bite was cataloged by the researchers in order to determine how many of the bites were the product of mimicry.

After analyzing each and every bite taken, the researchers determined that both women in the pairs studied were quite likely to take a forkful of food at the same time. In general, both women mimicked the other, but the partner who knew her portion size in advance was less likely to mimic her companion.

However, the pattern did not hold throughout the meal. The pairs were three times more likely to mimic each other when they first began to eat than toward the end.

"The matched actions of both eating companions fall within the typical definition of behavioral mimicry," the authors conclude. They are less certain of why this happened.

Possible Explanations

One possibility is that both women are unconsciously primed to mimic each other by what the authors refer to as a mirroring network, in which one person who sees another perform an action is therefore likely to perform that same action. In this case, one of the women sees the other lift her fork and take a bite, so she automatically does the same.

The authors also suggest that the two women were monitoring each other in order to avoid "eating inappropriately" or "to ingratiate themselves with their eating companion." They speculate that mimicry may lessen when eating with familiar people compared to strangers.

After noting several shortcomings of the study, the authors conclude that mimicry may explain, at least in part, why who we dine with affects how -- and how much -- we eat.

"As long as such important influences on intake are not wholeheartedly acknowledged," they write, "it will be difficult to make healthy food choices and maintain a healthy diet."

SOURCES: News release, PLoS ONE.Hermans, R.C.J. PLoS ONE, Feb. 2, 2012.

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