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Eating Styles Rub Off on Family and Friends

Study Shows Eating Patterns Are Shared in Social Circles
By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 22, 2011 -- They say husbands and wives begin to look like each other over time. That might not be true, unless the couple has a penchant for matching polo shirts, but a study suggests they do begin to eat like each other as the years pass.

Previous research has tracked the spread of obesity in social networks. The authors of the new study wanted to see how much food and drink choices rubbed off on friends and family.

The researchers analyzed the socioeconomic and demographic distribution of eating of 3,418 people. Between 1991 and 2001, the participants had completed two or three questionnaires about what they'd eaten the previous week. They looked at associations among spouses, close friends, and siblings.

"The people we consider meaningful in our lives tend to share a lot of the eating behaviors that we do," researcher Mark Pachucki, PhD, tells WebMD. The good news, he says, is that "we can use those people to help us make better choices."

Varieties of Eating Patterns

The authors categorized each person as having one of seven different eating patterns:

  • People who fit the "meat and soda" pattern ate more animal proteins and sweetened colas and other caffeinated drinks.
  • The "sweets" eaters ate not only more sugary products but also high-fat dairy products and refined grains.
  • Those who fell in the "alcohol and snacks" group consumed disproportionate amounts of those, compared to their peers.
  • "Light eaters" did just that, whether the food in question was vegetables or desserts.
  • "Caffeine-avoidant" folks drank plenty of decaf sodas and coffee.
  • "Offsetting" eaters ate lots of snacks and low-fat sweets but also ate lots of whole grains, nonfat milk, and healthier high-fat foods, such as nuts and peanut butter.
  • And, of course, "healthier" eaters ate the highest levels of fruits and veggies, low-fat poultry, fish, and beans.

After accounting for sociodemographic factors that could influence the spread of eating patterns, such as how far apart friends or siblings lived, the researchers found that spouses were most likely to eat alike. However, eating patterns seemed to spread across all the relationships examined.

Social Drinking

Across all relationships, the eating pattern most likely to be shared was alcohol and snacks, which, as Pachucki and his co-authors write, makes sense.

"Items in this food pattern are easy to share and often require less of a time commitment relative to meals," the authors write. "In addition, in American society, alcohol is culturally associated with sociability."

You might enter a relationship with similarities already, but this is not necessarily a case of like attracts like, says Pachucki, a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and UC San Francisco Center for Health and Community.

Spouses were more likely to eat alike later in the study than earlier. You and your spouse might start to eat alike because one does all the grocery shopping. Or maybe the two of you move and start eating the local cuisine together.

Pachucki happens to be getting married this weekend, but he doesn't expect to see his eating patterns change because he and his fiancée already fall into the same category. In case you're wondering, Pachucki, a marathon runner, and his bride are "healthier" eaters.

His study is published online in the American Journal of Public Health.

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