I hope you don’t feel terribly click-baited but this post is not about thin shaming or fat shaming. Sorry. It could just as easily have been called “Are You Friends Making You Thin?” or “Are Your Friends Helping You Maintain the Utmost Healthy Weight for Your Body” except neither of those are alliterative, and I wanted you to read this.
The people around us quite literally shape us. Whether it’s your co-workers who always go out for a coffee (and muffin) every morning or your friend who’s doing the Keto and insists on counting the carbs in her meal – these decisions affect us. It’s very idealistic to say “do your own thing, focus on yourself”. It’s also ignorant. Clearly we are greatly impacted by the people we interact with. It is the very basis of influencer culture.
This post is about:
- Recognising the influence that the people around you have on your diet, lifestyle and feelings
- Identifying whether the influence is positive or negative
- Developing strategies to maintain healthy relationships and a healthy mind and body (and lessen the impact that others have on you)
This story starts at a McDonalds drive-through. My boyfriend and I had gone to The Pancake Parlour for breakfast and then done a rather flat hike. Afterwards, he was starving and I was still processing my salted caramel medley. So we went to McDonalds. I didn’t want to miss out – freaking FOMO – so I ordered chips and chicken nuggets. Later on, I teased that it was his fault I had over-eaten. And so ensued a discussion (argument? No discussion. Discussion) about who is responsible for what they stick in their mouth. The individual, obviously. Right?!? It got me thinking, maybe it wasn’t so cut and dry…
Here’s a little breakdown on some of the more prominent studies going around. If you weren’t already aware, I love a good study but, like a good fake fur coat, they can be hard to find. I only looked at studies with a decent sample size and legitimate methods.
Community Impacts Health
Malcolm Gladwell proves the effects of ‘community’ on health in a chapter of his book Outlier. In it, he focuses on the town Roseto in Manhattan. In the 1950s, rumour spread that something about this town was preventing those under the age of sixty-five from getting heart disease – a medical mystery. Was this due to healthy dietary practices from their mother country Italy? Good genes? Something about that geographical location that made you healthier than others? After intensive research, a sociologist and physician realized the paesani culture had created a “powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.”
As Gladwell wrote, “Wolf and Bruhn had to convince the medical establishment to think about health and heart attacks in an entirely new way: they had to get them to realize that you couldn’t understand why someone was healthy if all you did was think about their individual choices or actions in isolation. You had to look beyond the individual.”
All this to say: Your community matters. Your friendship circle matters. Everyone you come in to contact with can impact your health.
Good Health is Contagious
In the Framingham Heart Study, 15,000 Framingham residents and their descendants, went to a doctor’s office every four years, on average, for a comprehensive physical. “By analyzing the Framingham data, Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses.”
This ‘contagion’ is neither good nor bad. It can promote the maintenance of healthy habits and it can also be the reason you’re still smoking six years after you said you’d quit. Either way, it exists. So it’s worth assessing whether your friendship group or your extended family are being a positive or negative influence.
- When you are done socialising, do you feel healthy?
- Do you feel that you made the right choices for you?
- Or were you subconsciously pressured to act one way or another?
It’s usually not super hard to work out which particular category the influence falls under. But mitigating this influence is another story.
A lot of advice about dealing with negative influence talks about moving away from it. That’s great, if you can. But if you’re in a workplace you love or you have an amazing friend with unhealthy eating habits, that’s not necessarily possible or something you would want to do. Instead, here are some ideas to ensure your relationship with others doesn’t worsen your relationship with yourself:
Know How You Feel
One of the best ways to prevent unwanted influence is with assertiveness. But you can only assert yourself if you’ve taken the time to consider what you like, want and stand for. Maybe you believe in dessert after dinner or maybe you’re doing meat free Mondays. Think about what your goals are for yourself and what choices bring you the most health and happiness. It’s easier to maintain a healthy approach when you’ve first established what that is.
Be Aware of the Influence
Improve the way others inform your interactions with food by thinking about it (like you are now, by reading this!). If you’re conscious of external influence, you can then begin to reduce it. When your co-workers invite you out for coffee (you’re on your third for the morning) don’t mindlessly accept and spend the afternoon with the shakes. Mentally note, you don’t want or need another coffee. Say you’ll go along for the walk. You get the networking and socialising, minus the insomnia.
Prepare in advance
If you’re concerned you’re heading to a housewarming where there will be no healthy options, stop your worrying – bring your own. You feel strange BYOing capsicum and hummus? Firstly, with food intolerances on the rise, people have to cater for their unique diets more than ever. You’ll probably be placing your platter next to a lactose-free, gluten-free cake baked by a fellow guest. Secondly, it’s pretty good manners to bring food along to most social settings. More than likely, people will appreciate your effort (even if the reality was sixty seconds of vegetable hacking). And finally, the hard one, easier said than done: Put your health before other’s opinions. It’s your body for life.
Everyone’s body and healthy journey is super individual. Despite this, people love to project their own issues on to the people around them. You’re not a whiteboard, you will not be projected on! If you feel the most energised you’ve ever felt but people are always having a go at you for choosing salad, sometimes it’s worth kindly mentioning once: “Thanks for the concern but I’m really happy with my decisions.” If it persists, repeat, along with “Could you please stop bringing it up.”
Visa versa, you might regularly brunch with a friend who can’t help commenting on your high-calorie choices. They might not even realise they’re doing it because of their own struggles. But that doesn’t mean you need a side of criticism with your pancakes. Again, raise it politely: “Hey, sometimes you mention the calories in my food. I don’t think you mean to but it makes me a bit uncomfortable. I’m really happy with my choices and I’d love it if we could talk about other things when we catch up.”
Maintain Positive Self-Talk
When this sort of behaviour occurs in the workplace, it can be much more difficult to manage. At least with a friend, there’s the foundation of love and honesty. You might be faking smiles with a co-worker, so having a genuine conversation with them could be out of the question. I remember one time I was eating a burger at work. “That’s healthy,” a senior colleague had the audacity to remark. In that instance, I didn’t feel comfortable or confident enough to speak up.
I just had to remind myself that her comment was borne of her own dietary beliefs and that my food choices were none of her business. I was very active, I felt fine with what I was eating. But even if I was inert, it was not her place to pass judgement.
Use Influence for Good
If the first step is acknowledging the impact our circles can have on us, the next step is harnessing this impact for good. You can sign up to a Body Pump class with your partner, meet your friend for a walk; spend family time in a park rather than a cinema.
Most importantly, if you want to improve the health of the people around you, model that health, don’t mandate it. In this day and age, people know what is and isn’t healthy. Unless someone is exhibiting disordered eating, there is no need to make comments about their choices. Judgement does not empower someone to put healthy food in their mouth. But it will leave a bad taste.