Is it what we eat? How we eat? How we learned to eat?

Many Americans are asking these questions and searching for the answers as they battle thickening waistlines and pounds that just don’t seem to come off. And many watch in alarm as our children struggle with the same issues of obesity as American adults.

In recent posts, I have discussed how the media has focused attention heavily on what we eat.

And certainly the food that we put into our bodies plays a significant role in how much we weigh.

One study, for example, found that obese subjects ate 81 percent more total calories after eating two meals of instant oatmeal than they did after eating two meals with the same calories in the form of a vegetable omelet and fruit (Ludwig and colleagues, 1999).

This study — focused on carbohydrates’ effect on blood sugar levels and our perception of hunger — illustrates how what we eat is vital to how much we eat. We feel more full and eat fewer unnecessary calories when our diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, protein and fiber. When our diets are heavy in white bread, sugars and processed foods, we eat more overall.

However, we often don’t look too far beyond the content of our diets when we consider weight loss. If we don’t stick to healthier eating, we often blame ourselves and our lack of willpower, without exploring other factors that may contribute to our difficulties maintaining a healthy diet and a healthy weight.

But eating is about much more than the food we put into our mouths. In a recent post I discussed cognitive behavioral strategies for improving our eating and exercise habits.

In this post, I’m focusing on how we learned to eat, how our families ate when we grew up, and how the environment and norms of the people that surround us have an impact on our eating habits and our weight.

A research study assessing family environments that promote overweight children found that families share not just genetics, but also habits, eating styles and activity levels that all affect weight (Birch & Davison, 2001).

Parents influence their children’s weight through the foods they feed their children and through their own eating behaviors. Even parents who are conscientious about eating and weight may pass on problematic eating behaviors, if they become overly controlling of food in an effort to prevent obesity, according to the study.

Feeding kids healthy foods can be more difficult than it seems. Most parents have attempted to feed a child green beans or some other healthy food, only to have the food rejected. And parents may offer a healthy meal to a child who is full from snacking earlier in the day.

Promoting healthy diets in children requires parents and caregivers to help children make healthy food choices, learn to regulate their own food intake and try a range of new foods, say Birch and Davison. To do this, they must have tools to get children to eat without coercion, understand appropriate portion sizes for kids and how often to feed them and help children learn to make healthy food choices without placing them on restrictive diets.

There has been some recent, controversial research (PDF) into the idea that obesity can spread from person to person like a virus. Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist at Harvard, and James Fowler, a social scientist at the University of California, maintain that their research indicating that behaviors that contribute to obesity can be passed from person to person is strong. However, critics have questioned their research methodology.

Using data gathered from 12,067 subjects in a long-running federal study, Dr. Christakis and Dr. Fowler noted that friends and friends of friends tended to have similar weight levels.

They hypothesized that these findings could be because people seek out friends who are like them, that friends shared similar environments and their weight was similarly influenced by that environment or that weight was socially contagious.

It is the third hypothesis, that weight is socially contagious, that has garnered criticism. But whether our overweight friends cause us to become obese by catching their unhealthy habits or whether we are simply choosing friends who are comfortable in the same environment we are, it is clear that the behavioral norms of the people around us have an effect on our weight.

Our families provide us with our first experience of ‘normal’ when it comes to eating and activity levels. When we go out into the world and create our own social networks, we often seek what is comfortable and feels ‘normal.’ This may explain why eating differently can be so challenging.

Establishing new social norms and putting yourself in environments that foster healthy eating and activity are often overlooked factors that are crucial to maintaining a healthy weight.


Birch L.L., Davison K.K. Family environmental factors influencing the developing behavioral controls of food intake and child overweight. Pediatr Clin North Am, 2001 Aug: 48(4): 893-907.