Imagine you are out to eat and just as you are finishing your meal, the wait staff comes by with the dessert cart. You watch as your friends order cheesecake, a mudslide, or a berry crisp, then all eyes fall on you. You try to say no, but your companions cajole you into ordering a piece of chocolate cake.
Does this sound familiar? I know I am guilty of eating a cookie (or two or three) because everyone around me was having one. When our environment triggers us to behave in a certain way, we call that a social cue. Think about the social cues in your life that prompt you to eat unhealthy or be inactive. Are you more likely to order a basket of fries with dinner if everyone around you is? Is it hard to exercise in the evening when everyone else in the house is watching TV?
Many social cues are relatively harmless and have nothing to do with eating or staying active. However, some can derail your best efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Social cues can be especially difficult to manage because they involve other people who may not be interested in changing their behavior. It can further complicate things if you look to the other person for support and he or she has some influence over your diet and exercise.
Instead of trying to change the behavior of others, work to change how you respond to the social cue. Here are a few tips:
- Avoid the cue – At first, it may be easier to avoid the social cue altogether while you learn to change your reaction to it. For example, if you routinely meet a group of friends for breakfast, and you always order biscuits and gravy, it may be best to avoid having breakfast with them at that particular place for a while.
- Change the cue – You can’t force your friends and family to change their behavior, but you can talk to them about how you plan to change your behavior. Their reactions may surprise you. They may be happy to bring fruit or nuts instead of a candy bar to the baseball game.
If you have a paid support person who helps you with cooking and shopping, talk to them about your goals. Try to set clear expectations for how you would like to eat and the types of food you want in the house moving forward. You have the right to tell them you don’t want potato chips in the house anymore.
- Practice responding to offers of unhealthy food – Saying “no thank you” to offers of unhealthy food takes practice! Begin by practicing in the mirror and work your way up to declining offers of unhealthy food from a beloved aunt. Remember, be polite but assertive. You may have to say “no thank you” more than once to get your message across. If they ask why, all you have to say is, “I’m taking more control over what I eat.” End of conversation.
- Replace a negative social cue with a healthy social cue – Social cues can encourage us to eat healthy and be active just as they can encourage us to eat unhealthy and be inactive. You can create healthy social cues by going to places where others are active, setting a regular date with friends to exercise, or inviting friends over for a healthy meal.Social cues can be especially powerful during special events because they are often immersed in traditions that encourage over indulgence – think Thanksgiving dinner. If you know you have a special event coming up, follow these tips to stay on track with your diet and exercise:
- Plan – If you know you’re going to be eating a hearty meal in the evening don’t indulge in a big breakfast and lunch. Choose smaller, healthier portions throughout the day so you have a little more wiggle room when it’s time for the bigger meal.
- Watch your alcohol consumption – Alcohol can interfere with reasoning, lower inhibition and cause us to eat more. It also packs a wallop of calories. If you choose to drink, try to keep your alcohol consumption to one serving and drink with your meal. It is recommended that women consume less alcohol than men who typically weigh more and have more of the enzyme that metabolizes alcohol.
- Share a healthy dish – Bring a healthy dish to share with the group. That way you know there will be at least one healthy dish for you to enjoy.
Changing social cues, especially those surrounding special events, is difficult! Don’t get discouraged if you slip up and remember to allow yourself the occasional indulgence. Maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle includes occasionally eating dessert with friends and family.
-By Rebecca Goe, M.A., research associate at the University of Montana Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities and investigator on the GoWoman study with the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities at Baylor College of Medicine and TIRR Memorial Hermann