The findings of a recent study of hospital workers show that the food we consume, both healthy and unhealthy, is influenced by people in our social networks.
The results of the research were published in the journal titled ‘Nature Human Behaviour’ and these findings may help guide efforts to improve population health.
According to the study, the foods people buy at a workplace cafeteria may not always be chosen to satisfy an individual craving or taste for a particular food. Individuals are more likely to choose food items that are chosen by their coworkers.
“We found that individuals tend to mirror the food choices of others in their social circles, which may explain one-way obesity spreads through social networks,” said Dr. Douglas Levy, PhD, an investigator at the Mongan Institute Health Policy Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and first author of new research published in Nature Human Behaviour.
Dr. Levy and his co-investigators discovered that individuals’ eating patterns can be formed even by casual acquaintances, evidence that corroborates several multi-decade observational studies showing the influence of people’s social ties on weight gain, alcohol consumption, and eating behavior.
The healthfulness of employees’ food purchases was determined using the hospital cafeterias’ “traffic light” labeling system designating all food and beverages as green (healthy), yellow (less healthy), or red (unhealthy).
MGH workers can pay with their ID cards in the hospital cafeterias, allowing researchers to gather information on individual food transactions, as well as when and where they were made. The researchers deduced the participants’ social networks by looking at how many minutes apart two people bought food, how much those two people ate at the same time over weeks, and when two people went to a different cafeteria at the same time.
“Two people who make purchases within two minutes of each other, for example, are more likely to know each other than those who make purchases 30 minutes apart,” said Dr. Levy. The researchers surveyed over 1,000 workers for the study purposes.
“A novel aspect of our study was to combine complementary types of data and to borrow tools from social network analysis to examine how the eating behaviors of a large group of employees were socially connected over a long period,” commented co-author Dr. Mark Pachucki, PhD, associate professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The researchers discovered that food purchases by people who were related to each other were consistently more similar than they were different, based on cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses of three million interactions between pairs of employees making cafeteria purchases together. “The effect size was a bit stronger for healthy foods than for unhealthy foods,” Dr. Levy added.
“People may change their behaviour to cement the relationship with someone in their social circle,” said Dr. Levy. Co-workers may also implicitly or explicitly give each other license to choose unhealthy foods or exert pressure to make a healthier choice, as per the study.
“As we emerge from the pandemic and transition back to in-person work, we have an opportunity to eat together in a more healthful way than we did before. If your eating habits shape how your co-workers eat–even just a little–then changing your food choices for the better might benefit your co-workers as well,” concluded Dr. Pachucki.