Are Eating Habits Contagious?

by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

Although you might not realise it, several factors influence what you choose to eat and how much you choose to eat: with everything from where you buy your food, to food images, flavours and smell.

But could other people’s eating patterns also influence what and how much you eat, even when you don’t eat in company?

If so, how exactly do you “catch” others’ eating behaviours, good or bad? Is it your need for approval… or something entirely different?

More importantly, could we use this awareness to our benefit?

In this report, we look at the latest studies on eating psychology and food choice norms, including a brand-new 2015 review. Prepare to be amazed!

Grab “Are eating habits contagious?” below:


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Conveniently download this 27-page science report. Contains links to extra reading materials and scientific references.

Topics covered in this report:

  1. What influences our food choices?
  2. Is obesity socially “contagious”?
  3. Losing weight with a teammate
  4. If everyone else is eating this way…
  5. Can we “catch” eating behaviours?
  6. I’ll have what you’re having…
  7. What did the researchers find?
  8. Contagion and shared identity
  9. Could it be the need for approval?
  10. How did they know others’ choices?
  11. Their choices, my choices
  12. Social proof of perceived benefits
  13. When is contagion likely to happen?
  14. Don’t tell me what I should eat…
  15. Can we use this to our benefit?
  16. So, are eating habits contagious?
  17. Your key takeaways
  18. Learn more
  19. References and resources


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And I'd love to hear from you in the comments below:

  1. What's your number one discovery from this report?
  2. What does it mean to you and those you help?
  3. Which action steps could you take to trigger a healthier contagion effect?

Share your own insights with me and your fellow readers!

Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.
Connect with Alex via email.

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  • Stephanie

    Reply Reply March 12, 2015

    I eat because it tastes good. It makes me feel good. I like to munch on crunchy foods. Salt & chocolate. Sweet & sour. Coffee & chocolate.

  • Zoe

    Reply Reply March 12, 2015


    I’ve learnt a lot, and what shocked me is that it never crossed my mind that obesity can be socially transmitted. Scary concept!

    Thinking about it, I can now see that some of my food choices have been influenced by what I believe some people I admire eat.

    Also my hockey team has some influence I think. We have the same goals and share quite a bit, travel together, we know what’s good for us and what is not. So that is possibly a good influence in my case.

    My action plan is to start a blog where I share what and how I eat myself, my food choices, to hopefully inspire others to eat better too!!!

    I love my Thursday reports, they’re like a morning newspaper I can read over coffee!!

    Thanks a lot for the great lessons!!

    • Dan

      Reply Reply March 12, 2015

      Hey Zoe,my rugby teammates eat tons of junk so consider yourself lucky! Since a couple of us are doing the Advanced Sports & Exercise Nutrition course we’re trying to turn around how our players eat and hope to serve as an example! This report is terrific as I didn’t know that others look at what you eat and don’t like to be told what they should eat. Knowing this is priceless!!! My #1 action step is to provide adequate eating examples, from myself, some of my mates and athletes we admire. Thanks for sharing this trick, Alex, terrific stuff!

      • Alex

        Reply Reply March 12, 2015

        Dan – sounds like a wonderful strategy to me, go for it! :-)

  • Maureen

    Reply Reply March 12, 2015

    I think that some of this I already knew at least subconsciously because I live in an area that their social life revolves around eating. You cannot go to someone’s house without eating. Literally, almost every social interaction involves food and while I have to confess that a lot of it tastes really good, most of it is unhealthy

  • Tom

    Reply Reply March 12, 2015

    Fantastic report, Alex!

    I’ll pay more attention to the food pics I share via Facebook and Twitter going forward.!.

    What an eye-opener, thanks for the great science

  • Erika

    Reply Reply March 12, 2015

    I love the part of not wanting to please others, that’s so me!! Yet, I totally see how some people I look up to have an impact on my NEW food choices. Since I hang with health conscious people, I tend to eat much healthier! Alex, you also make me think about the impact that I may have on others. I’d like to start a blog sharing delicious recipes and inspiring others to eat better. This really motivates me!! Instead of telling them what they SHOULD eat, I’ll show them what I eat!! Love your reports, thank you for the amazing inspiration, you’re the best!

  • Rheta Perez

    Reply Reply March 12, 2015

    I lived in the secret world of the fat lady for decades and only recently, as a result of weight loss surgery am now at a normal weight. “Regular” people may follow the examples in the article, but morbidly obsese people live a secret life and hide the amount if food they consume. Emotional eating comes from within. I did a lot of pretending when I was around normal people.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply March 12, 2015

      Hi Rheta – thanks for your comment, and congrats! Let me share a few extra bits with you, which you might find helpful in your situation. The studies we analysed found a clear difference between self-control when eating in public VERSUS social influences even when eating alone or “in secret” as you say. The experiments showed that “managing social impressions” moderates your food choices too, for example, high self-monitors and those concerned about how they present themselves socially tend to choose LESS food, but only when making food choices in public. On the other hand, social approval does not explain why we’re influenced by shared identity when we eat alone or in secret. There’s also some shared identity in the wording you use, e.g. feeling part of the “emotional/secret eaters” group. Putting ourselves in a social category is normal and part of how we define ourselves – that alone has a powerful influence on our eating behaviors, in a positive or in a detrimental way. That said, being aware of these influences can be very powerful too, because it means you may be able to do something about it.

  • Patricia Howard Kessinger

    Reply Reply March 12, 2015

    I’ve known this for a long time. After my husband passed away I continued to cook and eat the way we always did, despite I never liked some of the foods and didn’t care to eat such a large breakfast ( potatoes, bacon, eggs, toast, etc). It took me a while to break the habit. My husband was from the south and ate a lot of fried foods, sweets and 3 large meals a day. Yes, I was over weight. I began to realize I ate because it was time to eat, not just when I was hungry. And the full 3 course meal! It took me a while to break that habit. Now I eat when i’m hungry, still the 3 course meal but with baked and broiled and steamed veggies. Still desserts, but friuit and healthy shakes. Still working on the weight loss, but slowly, just like I put it on.

  • Linda

    Reply Reply March 13, 2015

    Eating is a necessity and enjoyment, but what looks and smells great, isn’t always good for you. So with that in mind, I have to constantly ask myself “Is what I am about to eat a good choice for my health. If all food that wasn’t good for us tasted terrible, it would make my life so much easier. So everything that goes into my mouth has to go through a thought process. And one thing I do know for sure, you can’t beat how healthy feels, but it’s a work in progress!

  • Susie

    Reply Reply March 14, 2015

    Love this Alex!! My action plan is to start a blog where I share pics and videos of healthy eating examples from myself, from my clients and from my cycling team, and how happy and amazing we look and feel. I agree I dont like to be told how or what I should eat! We need to become role models and not healthy eating judges trying to convince people of what we believe to be healthy. This report is worth gold, thanks for the brilliant science!

  • Emily

    Reply Reply March 14, 2015

    Another fantastic report. I look forward to receiving my weekly Thursday email to let me know the next report is out! I hope you don’t mind me suggesting something for perhaps a future topic. Do forgive me if it’s something you’ve already covered! I would be really interested in a report about the whole Gluten debate and whether or not those who don’t suffer from Coeliac Disease any kind of intolerance really should stop eating Gluten. Is it really as bad for us everyone says?! I would love to know some real facts and figure out the scientific knowledge behind it all! Thanks for being such a great inspiration, signing up for the Nutritional Therapist course with The Health Sciences Academy is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

  • kristene

    Reply Reply March 15, 2015

    This was a really interesting read. I was really shocked to read that we can eat a certain way when we are with groups of people, good and bad choices.

    When I am out with slimmer people who I know judge my eating habits, I tend to order a healthy option plus dessert. However when I with my bigger friends I eat what makes me feel good, not necessarily good options.

    I can see in my house hold that if I eat more healthy or cook that way, people in my household will hopefully develop healthy eating habits too.

    I would encourage others to try recipes I am trying, for better health.

  • Lovern

    Reply Reply March 16, 2015

    This reminds me of a saying that my parents would use, ‘what monkey see monkey do’ meaning that we follow the pattern, lifestyle or behaviour of those around us or who we associate with, be it good or bad.

  • Monika

    Reply Reply March 17, 2015

    How very interesting! I was surprised to read that our food patterns can be so easily influenced by others. I hardly snack at work trying to set a good example for my colleagues but not always make the best food choice with eating out with others. This divided pattern always leaves me puzzled. Finally there is an answer to that! I will now be more aware of the ‘indirect’ influence my food choice and portion sizes may have on others as well as be more aware of how others food choice can impact mine. Thanks for sharing another great topic. I’m looking forward to more findings helping us live more healthy lives.

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