How to deal with being cajoled into eating more than you intended

Do you eat more than you really want to when you eat out with friends?

When you find that despite your best intentions, you splurge whenever you eat out with friends, you may be tempted to avoid eating out, at least until you’ve reached your goal weight. But eating out with friends can be one of the most enjoyable and life-enhancing ways to unwind.  Meals out are fun and give you a boost after an exhausting week at work.

The problem is, at the end of the evening you feel stuffed with food and wine, which may mean you don’t sleep well that night.  And as you lie awake, you berate yourself for your lack of control. You just wish you could get a grip and stop eating to bursting point.

You can change this pattern and enjoy meals out as much as ever

Once you are aware of some of the group dynamics that operate around a restaurant table, you can take steps to resist pressures to eat more, without becoming a party-pooper. You can choose what to eat on the basis of what you really fancy, and decide how much to eat based on what your body needs.

Meals out will be as enjoyable as ever, minus the bloating and self-flagellation. And you’ll be able to sleep better if your gut is not groaning from over-excess.

How to reduce your quantity of food without reducing the quantity of fun

  1. Understand what’s going on in the group

It’s important to understand that social influences are extremely powerful and often override other influences on eating, such as your prior intentions or goals. Two highly respected experts in the psychology of eating, Dr Janet Polivy and Dr Peter Herman, talk about this issue in “The Self-Regulation of Eating” *. They describe how people subconsciously use the intake of their eating companions as a regulatory guide.

An experiment which measured how much was eaten involved both genuine participants (“subjects”) and stooges who were part of the experimental team. The subjects tended to eat slightly less than the stooges, however much the stooge ate.

So it seems that there’s a socially-based regulatory strategy going on, where the goal of the eater is to eat less than the other person. And if you’re around a table where everyone is subconsciously doing that, there will be all sorts of stuff going on.

Other people may be encouraging you to eat more so that they can eat what they want, and still be eating less than you

  1. Understand why you seem to end up eating the most

If everyone was exactly the same, and everyone was eating just less than the next person, who knows how the meal would end up?! But we’re not all the same, and some of us pay more attention to other people’s feelings than others. If you’re someone who’s highly attuned to other people’s happiness then you are more likely to respond to your friends’ subtle signals about how much they want to eat. And so you’ll be ordering more than you intended, even without realising why.

Trying to help other people feel OK about what they’re eating may mean you’re eating more than you want.

  1. Decide how you want to eat when you’re out

To stop being caught up with the subconscious influences of your eating companions, work out what your own intentions are for the meal before you get to the restaurant. If you know what’s on the menu you can be specific with your planning, but if you don’t, a general intention to reduce your usual meal size would be OK. It’s probably wise to start with making a small change to what you’d usually do, so that you don’t attract attention to doing something different.

You could decide not to eat anything from the bread basket, or pass on side orders, or only have sides and no main dish. Or only have a starter and a dessert.

  1. Prepare your response to people’s questions

In case people remark on you eating less, you may want to have a reply rehearsed. You could be honest and say that you’re discovering that food tastes better when you eat less and that you want your dessert to taste fabulous. Or that you’ve decided to experiment with losing weight without dieting by cutting down a bit on every meal. Or you could make something up.

Worried you’ll be missing out?

If you’re prone to FOMO (fear of missing out – a new buzz-term in popular psychology), then remember that when you order less and eat less:

  1. You’ll suffer less indigestion
  2. You’ll probably sleep better
  3. What you do eat will taste better because your taste buds won’t be so desensitised by eating so much
  4. Your meals will cost less
  5. You can lose weight without missing out on restaurant meals
  6. You’ll discover strengths you didn’t know you had
  7. Social interaction can provide much more pleasure than the food itself. Think of disappointing food you’ve eaten with great friends, and still had a fun time
  8. You’re able to give up the role of top-eater without upsetting your friends. They may even thank you if they start eating less themselves!

Your first step

Before you leave home for your next meal out, plan how you’ll most enjoy having a smaller meal. If you know where you’re going and they have the menu online, have a look and decide what to order. Think what you’ll say if anyone tries to get you to order more, so you’re prepared with a reply. And when you’re out, focus on enjoying the chat or the banter most of all, because that’s what’s likely to give you the greatest “high”.

Take it one meal at a time, and see what works for you and what doesn’t. As with everything to do with eating and appetite, there’s no one right way to do things.

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*Herman, C.P. and Polivy, J. “The Self-Regulation of Eating” in Vohs and Baumeister (2013)       Handbook of Self-Regulation.

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