Why we cave into cravings
Friends and workmates can be our worst enemies when it comes to healthy eating.
According to new research conducted by Taste.com.au as part of the Eat Real campaign, 51 per cent admitted that when their friends indulge they find it hard not to join them; and a massive 87 per cent of people trying to eat healthily have given up as a result of a single social event.
The findings highlight the influence of the feel-good chemical dopamine, released by our brain's reward system when we cave into our cravings. Then once we start we can't stop, thanks to a psychological response dubbed the "what-the-hell effect", which triggers a vicious cycle of indulgence, followed by shame, then greater indulgence.
"It's not surprising to learn these statistics, given how social Aussies are in general," said naturopath and author of The Healthy Gut, Reece Carter.
"I've definitely been there before. Just recently I was doing Dry January and found myself tempted to have a drink with friends almost every time I was out - and I'm not even a big drinker. It was that Fear Of Missing Out," he said.
"Even more recently, a handful of friends and I went out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I was fully prepared to navigate my way through the menu and pick out some of healthier options, but then it was mutually agreed by the table to get the banquet. My first instinct was to go along with the crowd because I 'didn't want to be difficult'," Reece said.
Many people find it hard to go against the consensus of a group at the risk of seeming rude or causing a fuss.
The research highlighted a number of interesting statistics that might be familiar to those trying to stay healthy.
More than a quarter of respondents said they feel out of control when it comes to food choices; 49 per cent said once they start eating something they like, they just can't stop even though they know they should; 48 per cent said they know what they should be eating to stay healthy but struggle when it comes to putting this into action; 42 per cent often feel frustrated with their food choice after they have eaten it - while 58 per cent get a guilt attack when they eat unhealthily.
Rather than pointing the finger at our friends or our poor willpower, however, we really should blame unrealistic diets, said Dr Nick Fuller, an obesity expert from the University of Sydney.
"Dieting has become a cultural obsession, and it's got to a point now where it's become the norm to avoid certain foods or food groups entirely."
"This may be something you can manage for a short period of time, but it's impossible to keep these restrictions going, especially in a social setting," he said.
It's only a matter of time before we find ourselves at a dinner party, surrounded by food options we can't control, that we end up failing on our diets spectacularly, demolishing a whole cake as opposed to just a slice.
"If you restrict foods, what eventually happens is those cravings come back with a vengeance and you end up overindulging. This puts us in a worse position than where we started," Dr Fuller said.
Rather than cancelling our after work drinks or weekend brunch date, what's needed is a holistic approach to healthy eating, one which involves all the food groups, and doesn't involve guilt and shame for eating the "wrong" thing.
"Nothing should be forbidden from our diets. If you go out with friends and indulge, that's fine, enjoy whatever food there is, just make it part of your weekly allowance."
Taste.com.au's Eat Real campaign is cutting the confusion and guilt around food and helping those struggling to eat well to fall in love with what's on their plate.
As part of the mission it analysed the eating habits of 22,000 people in the Great Australian Eating Survey and an even more detailed research panel of around 1500 people.
Eat Real features recipes and menu plans (including the budget conscious Eat Real 14-day challenge), news stories and a Facebook support group and the new Eat Real Unwrapped podcast series - and it is all for free at taste.com.au/eatreal.