Picture your last meal at a restaurant with friends.
Plates loaded with delicious food.
People laughing and telling stories.
Wine glasses filled and refilled over the course of the meal.
A good time, right?
Sure. But researchers say there’s a downside to all that social revelry, especially if you are trying to lose weight, or even just keep off the pounds.
New research has found that the urge to overeat is strongest when you are dining with others in social situations, especially when out at a restaurant.
“The biggest source of temptation is when people are in restaurants and they’re with other people. In particular, being with others who are eating is a huge trigger,” Lora Burke, PhD, MPH, the study’s lead author, and a professor of nursing at the University of Pittsburgh, told Healthline.
But it’s not just your friends who can lead your diet astray.
People can feel food temptation “even if they’re alone but are in sight of people who are eating,” said Burke.
In the year-long study, researchers used a smartphone app to follow 150 people enrolled in a weight loss program.
The app asked people to check in up to five times a day, reporting whether they were tempted to stray from their eating plan, or if they actually did.
At the same time, they reported where they were, who they were with, and their mood.
Throughout the day they also reported whenever they ate — or thought about eating — foods or portion sizes that didn’t fit their plan.
And they weighed themselves every day on a digital scale that sent data to the researchers automatically.
This use of technology in the study allowed researchers to capture information in real time, rather than relying on people to remember details later.
“We assessed them in the moment,” said Burke. “They’re in their natural environment — wherever they are — and they let us know what they’re doing, rather than relying on recall.”
The amount of data provided some hints at how people react to food temptations in different situations.
People were more tempted when they were in the presence of other people eating, compared with eating alone — even if they were sitting near strangers.
They also reported more food temptations when they were at a restaurant or bar, rather than at home or work.
And they were less likely to be tempted when eating in their car or at another person’s house.
Not every meal with friends at a restaurant leads down the path of temptation.
But the study found out that when people were tempted at a restaurant and were around others who were eating, “at least 60 percent of the time they will go on and eat something that they really weren’t planning for,” Burke said.
The chance of giving in to temptation at work or in the car was about 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
The study was presented at a recent meeting of the American Heart Association.
So is locking yourself in your house with a bowl of salad and ignoring your friends’ text messages your best option?
Even though eating at a restaurant with friends can be a high-risk situation, friends can actually help you stick to your weight loss plan.
Plus, the new study found that even though people experienced fewer food temptations when they were at home, they still gave into them about half of the time. Even when they were alone.
So food temptation lies in wait in many places. As do distractions — which some think may be behind our overeating.
“People often overeat when they’re distracted — social situations can be distracting, of course,” Dan Zigmond, author of “Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind,” told Healthline. “But sitting alone at your desk at work can be hugely distracting, as well. And there’s lots of evidence that people make bad choices in that situation, too.”
You can counteract the effect of these distractions by being more mindful while you eat.
This technique has been applied in successful weight loss programs. But its roots extend even further back.
“Part of the theme of our book is to carry forward the teachings that Buddha presented so many years ago. Those really all boil down to just paying attention,” said Zigmond. “To try to ensure that you’re always paying some attention to what you’re eating, no matter where you’re doing it, when you’re doing it, or with whom.”
Zigmond said that this works even in groups, as seen with Buddhist monks who eat their meals communally, and mindfully.
Mindful eating mind might mean something as simple as pausing for a moment before starting to eat. Or paying attention to each bite of food. Or talking about the food with your friends.
In the end, this can improve the dining experience for everyone, without leaving you feeling guilty afterward for overeating.
“I don’t think meals out with friends have to be bad for our health or our weight,” said Zigmond. “But we have to combine them with a certain amount of attention and mindfulness.”