1. Morin, Karen H. PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

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Have you ever noticed that you tend to eat more when in the company of others? Have you ever wondered why this happens? Answers to these questions have been the focus of investigators for more than 60 years (Herman, 2015; Higgs, 2015). Having an appreciation of current evidence is important when interacting with families about nutrition, including nutritional behaviors.


What do we know about the social nature of eating?

Higgs (2015), in her review of an extensive body of literature, suggests social norms exert an influence on eating behavior. Social eating norms are "perceived standards for what constitutes appropriate consumption, whether that be amounts of food or specific food choices, for members of a social group" (p. 39). Higgs suggests people may follow these perceived norms because they want to make a good impression and be liked by the people with whom they are eating. Also, they may wish to eat the correct foods, thus being healthier. Although earlier investigators considered these two possible reasons as independent, more recent investigators suggest that affiliation [being liked by the group] and informational motives [specific food choices] are interdependent. Higgs notes that following norms is influential in promoting safe food selections. A person learns what foods are safe by means of social learning that accumulates over time; thus, "what others eat is a good guide to food safety and nutrition" (p. 40). Following social norms may be adaptive as doing so can promote food sharing and collaboration. Lastly, adopting social eating norms may enhance a person's sense of well-being and belonging. Robinson, Blissett, and Higgs (2013) report similar influences of social norms: behavioral, as a means of knowing what to eat, and normative, as a means of ingratiating oneself with members of a group.


Modeling eating behaviors also can influence the type and amount of food consumed, particularly when the person modeling the behavior is a parent (Palfreyman, Haycraft, & Meyer, 2015). Examining parental modeling has not received as much attention as has controlling how children are fed (Palfreyman et al.). Their efforts to develop an instrument to measure parental modeling of eating behavior indicates that children have less food fussiness and enjoy food better when parents, particularly mothers, model the behavior (Palfreyman et al.). In other words, when mothers demonstrate enjoyment with foods being consumed, children responded similarly.


What does this mean for nurses?

Nurses can incorporate this information into their usual nutritional assessment. Asking such questions as "How frequently do you dine with friends?" can set the stage for sharing recent research findings about the effect of social norms on eating behavior. Although much of the research indicates increased consumption of food consequent to social norms, such influences need not always be negative. It is quite possible that a person may not eat as much when with a group, particularly if consuming less can enhance his or her status with the group. Informing parents about the effects of their modeling of positive eating behaviors on children may make a significant difference in how family meals are experienced. Focusing messages on behaviors, rather than attitudes or intentions, may be more effective in changing behaviors (Robinson et al., 2013). Nurses can also use this information to assess their behaviors so they can model healthy behaviors to those with whom they interact. Doing so can help reinforce the positive regard society has of nurses.




Herman C. P. (2015). The social facilitation of eating. A review. Appetite, 86(1), 61-73. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.09.016 [Context Link]


Higgs S. (2015). Social norms and their influence on eating behaviours. Appetite, 86(1), 38-44. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.10.021 [Context Link]


Palfreyman Z., Haycraft E., Meyer C. (2015). Parental modelling of eating behaviours: Observational validation of the Parental Modelling of Eating Behaviours scale (PARM). Appetite, 86(1), 31-37. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.08.008 [Context Link]


Robinson E., Blissett J., Higgs S. (2013). Social influences on eating: Implications for nutritional interventions. Nutrition Research Reviews, 26(2), 166-176. doi:10.1017/S0954422413000127 [Context Link]