Friendship Influences Eating Behavior, Particularly When
Friends Are Overweight
A new study of childhood
obesity in the United States has found that some social factors, such
as the presence of friends, may put overweight youths at greater risk
The research, published in
the August issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,
demonstrates that friends may act as "permission givers" on children's
"These results are important,
considering the role of friends as agents of change in childhood and
adolescence," said Sarah Salvy, Ph.D., assistant professor in the
Division of Behavioral Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, University
at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
"Overweight children are more
likely to find food more reinforcing than non-overweight youth," she
continued. "Being in the company of overweight peers may give them the
permission to eat more or may decrease their inhibitions, increasing
what are seen as the norms of appropriate eating, or how much one
The study involved 23
overweight and 42 normal weight children between the ages of 9 and 15,
who were randomized to participate with either a friend or an
unfamiliar person of a similar age. After randomization, there were 33
friend pairs and 39 "unfamiliar" pairs.
Before taking part in the
study experiment, participants listed what they had eaten in the past
24 hours to make sure they hadn't eaten anything during the previous
two hours, and rated their hunger level.
Each participant pair spent
45 minutes in a room equipped with games, puzzles and individual bowls
of low-calorie, "nutrient dense" baby carrots and grapes, and
high-calorie "energy-dense" potato chips and cookies. The children were
told they could eat as much or as little as they wanted, but were asked
to eat from their own bowls only.
Researchers observed the
children via closed-circuit television and recorded their activities.
At the end of the session, they weighed the snacks that weren't eaten
to determine how much each participant had consumed and to calculate
Results showed that friends
who ate together consumed more food than participants who were paired
with someone they didn't know, and that friends were more likely to eat
similar amounts than participants paired with a stranger.
However, overweight children
who were paired with an overweight peer, whether friend or stranger,
ate more than the overweight participants who were paired with a normal
"These findings indicate that
both overweight and normal weight participants eating with a friend ate
significantly more than did participants eating in the presence of an
unfamiliar peer," Salvysaid. "These results are consistent with
research in adults, which showed that eating among friends and family
is distinctly different than eating among strangers.
"Given the impact of friends
on eating behavior, it appears that if we hope to change the growing
obesity epidemic among children, friends and family need to be
involved," said Salvy. "If the environment in which children live
doesn't change -- if family meals remain high calorie and overeating is
the norm -- any progress children may make in their eating behavior
Salvy currently is
investigating the influence of a parent versus a friend on children's
and adolescents' eating behavior.
The research was supported by
a grant to Salvy from the National Institute of Child Health and Human
For more information on the
University at Buffalo, visti www.buffalo.edu.