The Surprising Connection Between Social Eating and Overindulgence

Social Eating

When you’re trying to control your weight, the old saying “you are what you eat” only tells half the story. Sure, the types of food you put on your plate and the portions you serve yourself are critical factors. But as it turns out, who you chow down with matters too, at least that’s what new research shows.

We Mirror the Eating Habits of Our Dining Companions

If you are trying to manage your weight, reconsider who you dine with.  According to a study from the Netherlands, female college students unconsciously mimicked the eating behaviors of their dining companions. This phenomenon is known as “behavioral mimicry” – when one person subconsciously copies the actions of another person or persons to bond and avoid behaving in a way that people might perceive as socially inappropriate.

For example, the researchers found that when one woman took a bite of food, her dining partner was likely to follow suit. So, if your dinner mate is a slow, mindful eater who takes small bites and savors each one, you could find yourself doing the same through behavioral mimicry. However, if your companion wolfs down food quickly and takes second helpings, you may feel compelled to match her eating style and increase the pace of your eating.

Additional research shows mimicry to be especially strong among women eating together. Women dining together tend to adjust their food intake to match that of the group. So, it’s more waistline-friendly to dine with companions who have healthy eating habits that match your own goals.

And if you’re dining with friends who tend to overeat, be mindful of the tendency to subconsciously increase your intake through behavioral mimicry. Paying attention to your own hunger and fullness cues can help you avoid overeating, even in social situations that may unconsciously trigger excess food consumption.

What If You’re Social Eating with a Group of People?

Dining with a group can really cause your risk of overeating to shoot up. According to research by Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, the more people you eat with, the more food you tend to consume. His studies found that women eat about 35% more when dining with just one other person. But when eating with a group of seven or more, they ate a whopping 96% more on average!

What’s behind this group eating effect? For one, you tend to lose track of how much you’re eating when you’re chatting and socializing with others. The distraction of good company makes it harder to pay attention to your own satiety cues. Plus, group meals last longer, giving you more time to grab additional helpings and nibble away.

The abundance of food at group gatherings doesn’t help either. With more people to feed, there are larger dishes, more courses, and greater variety that tempts you to overindulge. Others may actively encourage you to refill your plate too. The casual atmosphere of social eating lowers your inhibitions about overeating as well. All these factors add up to a perfect storm for uncontrolled portions when dining with a crowd!

So next time you’re eating with a group, be mindful. Focus on your own hunger levels, go for smaller plates, and don’t feel pressured to overeat just because others are. Paying attention to your own needs will help you avoid overdoing it in a social eating environment. Moderation and mindfulness are key to staying in control.

What about Solo Dining?

Dining solo may seem like the best approach if you are trying to control your weight. However, eating alone also comes with pitfalls that can derail your healthy eating goals. When you eat by yourself, it’s easy to get distracted by work, screens, or reading material. This type of “distracted eating” makes it harder to pay attention to how much food you are consuming. Research shows people tend to overeat when they direct their focus toward another activity rather than the meal itself.

When you eat while working on your computer, watching TV, or reading a book, you’re less likely to notice how quickly platefuls disappear. It’s easy to mindlessly devour larger portions when your mind is absorbed with something else. This auto-pilot eating prevents you from paying attention to important satiety signals from your body.

The best strategy to avoid overeating is to focus on each bite of food you take. Savor the sights, aromas, flavors, and textures of every morsel. Eat slowly, chewing thoroughly, and put down your utensils between bites. This mindful eating style allows your brain to properly register feelings of fullness as you eat. It also enables you to derive maximum satisfaction from smaller portions.

While social and solo dining both have potential downsides, you can navigate each by tuning into your own hunger cues. Eat slowly, minimize distractions, and stay aware of how much you are consuming regardless of the eating environment. A little mindfulness goes a long way in preventing overeating.


Many factors affect how much you eat, with one of the most impactful being who you share meals with. When dining with friends or in a group setting, it’s easy to get caught up in conversation and eat faster or more than intended.

To counter this, make a conscious effort to slow down and focus on your own hunger cues rather than matching the pace of your companions. Periodically pause eating to check in with yourself. If there are shared dishes or a buffet, limit yourself to one thoughtfully composed plate.

Eating alone also requires mindfulness. Without others to talk to, your focus may shift to a screen rather than the food you’re eating. When dining solo, devote your full attention to the food. Savor each bite, noticing the textures, aromas, and flavors. This mindful approach to eating, whether in company or alone, enables you to tune into your body’s signals of satisfaction.

With awareness, you can enjoy both social and solitary meals while still practicing healthy portion control. At the end of the day, maintaining a healthy weight is a balancing act between what’s on your plate and who’s at your table!


  • Roel C.J. Hermans, Lichtwarck‐Aschoff A, Bevelander KE, C. Peter Herman, Larsen JK, Engels E. Mimicry of Food Intake: The Dynamic Interplay between Eating Companions. PLOS ONE. 2012;7(2):e31027-e31027. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0031027
  • ‌Brian Wansink, PhD. (2006) Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Bantam Publishing.
  • “Food Psychology: Understanding Eating Behavior & Habits – Cleveland Clinic.” https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10681-the-psychology-of-eating.

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