It’s not always easy being my friend.
I take my health habits very seriously, which makes things complicated in a society that has organized social eating around convenience and speed more than nutritional content. For example, I don’t go out for pizza. OK – I do eat some pizza on occasion, but only if it is whole grain dough, loaded with vegetables and includes no processed meat. I’m sure you already see how that can be limiting. (Note to restaurateurs: the health-conscious is a largely underserved market and therefore a great business opportunity!)
Which brings me to the following question: how would your restaurant choice and what you order be different if you were to go out for a bite with a health nut like me, versus a devoted fast food fan?
A growing body of research shows that our food, mood, and exercise habits are strongly influenced by the behavior of other people in our networks. I bet that our sleep habits are too, although as far as I know, there is little research on that subject. Our weight is thus strongly influenced by the habits of those around us.
And it goes a step further. Those in our network also form our reality. Without us realizing it, as we interact with them, read their Facebook updates and observe their choices, they help establish what we find normal and acceptable. So we’re quite right to say we’re having an obesity epidemic: obesity indeed spreads from one person to the next, just as other diseases do.
Now of course we each have our own share of responsibility for this picture. But we tend to know about that part. However we tend to neglect the influence of our social networks.
So what can we do about it?
I recommend asking those who pull you away from your health goals to help you stay in line. Have a conversation with that fast food fan, and tell him about your goals. Explain what these goals mean to you, then ask him to be the gate keeper of your choices when the two of you get together. Chances are he won’t be taking you for spinach and salmon salad just yet, but if the arm twisting for the extra beer and cheesy nacho bowl stops, the two of you have already made progress together.
This technique can also be very helpful to those of you who are health coaches. Ask your participants about their social influencers, and see if you can help them turn an enemy into an ally. It’ll be much easier for them to improve their habits if they’re not swimming against the current.
For more resources on this topic, check out the following:
- My earlier blog post on social contagion titled What Are You Catching From Your Network?
- This Fox News article titled Most Americans Ignore Truth about Obesity
- This 18-minute TED talk by Nicholas Christakis titled The Hidden Influence of Social Networks
To build a social network supportive of health habits, see Buddy Up! on page 30 or No! to Arm Twisters on page 142 of our book.