According to a new study published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal, people are more likely to select foods that are as healthy—or unhealthy—as those chosen by their co-workers. This suggests that obesity may be spread through social networks.
Peer pressure with a side of fries
The University of Massachusetts researchers behind the latest report, recruited over 6,000 MGH employees of diverse ages and socioeconomic status as they ate at the hospital system’s seven cafeterias over the course of two years.
At the end of the analysis, the authors were able to establish a positive correlation between an employee’s current food choice and the most recent previous food choice a coworker made.
“Data were drawn from 3 million encounters where pairs of employees made purchases together in 2015–2016. The healthfulness of food items was defined by ‘traffic light’ labels. Cross-sectional simultaneously autoregressive models revealed that proportions of both healthy and unhealthy items purchased were positively associated between connected employees,” the authors wrote.
Coworkers mirror each other’s food choices
Consistently, participants seemed to mirror the food choices of those in their immediate circle and or those made by their casual acquaintances. The authors intend to push for workplace interventions to promote healthy eating and reduce obesity via peer-based strategies.
“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 of time,” says Pachucki, associate professor of sociology at the Computational Social Science Institute at UMass Amherst.
“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,” says Pachucki. “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.”
Although the new study focused on workplace relationships, its implications can easily be applied to broader social dynamics. A series of independently conducted studies arrived at similar conclusions; there is a palpable social pressure to mimic the dietary choices of those around us. The new paper indicates that healthy choices are as influential as unhealthy ones.