Do you ever walk away from a family party or neighborhood function, wondering why you just ate a Scout troop’s portion of cheesy potatoes and chocolate sheet cake? There are very significant “food scripts,” or socially expected exchanges, that occur within in group settings. Being aware of these pressures and nuances can help us to understand our tendency to overeat at gatherings, and help us to have more control and peace as we prepare for the holiday food frenzy ahead.
Imagine yourself entering the work party or neighborhood Christmas social. It’s six o’clock or so, and you have dedicated yourself to just one small helping of the cheesy potatoes, and perhaps just one éclair. Then the grandma on the street, Mrs. Johnson, approaches you, setting her pound cake on the collapsible table, and remarks, “This is my favorite dessert-try a piece!”
What conscious and subconscious pressures weigh in on your decision to partake?
1. In most family food cultures, food is an offering. It is a gift. To refuse Mrs. Johnson would be a personal rejection. Would you possibly hurt her feelings? Shivering at the thought, you take a generous non-offending slice.
2. You care about Mrs. Johnson. You want to sincerely compliment her so that you can see her beam over the attention. You decide on a larger piece.
3. You are tired and want to relax at the end of your day. In some cultures this time of the day is called “Happy Hour.” Even though you might not settle in with an alcoholic beverage, relaxing with friends and family AND a nice slice of cake (or two or three) really feels good. You decide to order two slices on the house.
4. Everyone else is happily eating. If you abstain, you are left out of the "social" part of the work or church social, alienating yourself. In the name of inclusion, you take another piece.
5. If you mention you are trying to watch your diet, women, who should be thinking “Good for her, she’s trying to be healthy,” instead hear “I am on a diet and you are not. I am getting thin and you are not.” Women can be very hard on themselves! Subconsciously we know this mental food script is going on in her mind, so we hesitate to share our nutritional goals so as to not compete with other women.
6. You are genuinely hungry. The cake smells good. It has a really pretty texture. That light, blonde color is so beautiful. Maybe just a little more…
7. There are large quantities available. Study after study has shown that if there is more on the plate, we eat more, period. Supersize me, Mrs. Johnson!
8. Many folks love a good deal—and what is a better deal than free? Free food means “let’s eat more” to get our money’s worth. You politely ask for another slice.
9. We abhor waste. It feels sinful to throw food away, as if we are disregarding sacrifice of our forefathers. Maybe you even feel guilty that your food storage isn’t really happening, and you decide to add on a few inches to the waistline and call it “food storage.” Another slice, please?
10. Scarcity—when will you get to savor Mrs. Johnson’s cake again? When she brings it by after the birth of your next child? It’s now or never, so you’d better get your fill now.
Within ten seconds, these food expectations, pressures and cultural nuances shape your response to Mrs. Johnson’s offer of pound cake. (Can you guess what your reply was?)
What is to be done with decades of social culture and old fashioned biology working against our resolve to eat less? Awareness of what is happening is a very power first step in helping to make healthy food decisions! Eat mindfully. Remember: you do not have to reject Mrs. Johnson’s cake…or valiantly polish off the whole thing. There are options in the middle. Take a small-sized plate and reasonable portions. Enjoy what you chose to eat. Be aware that we tend to eat almost double the amount we normally would when there is great conversation and a lingering type of atmosphere, (The same is true at certain restaurants.) Drink lots of water to help keep your hands busy. Eat mindfully so that you can enjoy the social and still respect your waistline the next day.