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I was digging into spaghetti Bolognese with my book group the other night when it hit me: My friendships have always revolved around food. As teens, my pals and I scooped chocolate frosting right from the can and ate raw cookie dough by the spoonful at sleepovers. In college, I bonded with my roomies over pizza and beer. As adults, my sporty girlfriends and I lived for our Saturday post-run brunches and our pre-race pasta dinners. Yikes -- were we food-obsessed?
"Eating is a social experience," says Evelyn Attia, MD, director of the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. "For some of us, it's an activity we do with our friends." Unfortunately, group munching can cause the pounds to add up. When you dine with another person, you consume 35 percent more than you would alone, research shows.
Got a pal (or two) who pushes your all-you-can-eat button? Here's how to ID a chowhound and give your friendship -- and your diet -- a food fix.Food Friend: The Comfort Queen
You just lost your job. You broke up with your boyfriend. No matter what the crisis, your best pal can see you through -- usually over a pint of mocha fudge ice cream or a package of chocolate chip cookies. "Guys have drinking buddies when they're depressed; women have eating buddies," says Daniel Stettner, PhD, director of psychology at UniSource Health Center in Troy, Michigan. "Unfortunately, what should be a supportive relationship turns into a situation where both women enable each other to eat -- and eat and eat."
Step away from the table: Instead of self-medicating with food, do some cardio. "Exercise is a potent weapon against depression," says Edward Abramson, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University at Chico and the author of Body Intelligence. Thirty-minute aerobic workouts three to five times weekly for three months reduce mild to moderate symptoms by nearly half, finds a study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Sign up for a Spinning class or start training for a 5K, and invite your friend to join you. In addition, stop the graze-and-gripe fests. If you need to spill, do it over the phone or when the two of you are on a power walk.Food Friend: The Party Girl
Your phone rings at 5 p.m. after a crazy day at the office. It's one of your buds, suggesting you both blow off steam by meeting at your favorite watering hole. Three margaritas, a heaping plate of nachos, and an order of chicken wings later, you head home feeling ill.
"Overdrinking and overeating are common ways to cope when you're under stress," says Stacey Rosenfeld, PhD, a psychologist in New York City. Alcohol also loosens inhibitions, which means that you and your friend are much more likely to start diving into the chip bowl.
Step away from the table: Limit time with your partying pal to Friday nights only. If you go to a bar, pick one with few or no appetizers so you're not tempted to overeat, Abramson suggests. When you arrive, order a glass of wine and a glass of water and hold the alcohol in your nondominant hand, says Jackie Keller, RD, a nutritionist in Los Angeles. "Most people drink less with this technique."
After she moved into her own apartment last spring, Alina Tuttle-Melgar, 29, accepted a dinner invitation from her new next-door neighbor. The two hit if off, and soon they were spending three or four nights a week together eating hearty dishes like meat loaf and chicken pot pie. On Saturday mornings they went to a local diner, where they ordered huge stacks of pancakes with bacon. "I never ate like that when I was alone," says Alina, an account executive in Boston. Why would someone who normally nibbles on healthy fare like grilled salmon and vegetables suddenly start putting away food like a truck driver? "When you see a friend chowing down on something fattening, it may give you permission to let go," says Martin Binks, PhD, director of psychiatry and behavioral health and research at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center at Duke University. "The guilt is gone, and it's suddenly easy to justify the hot fudge sundae even when you haven't planned to indulge."
Step away from the table: Visit with your pal between meals. "Schedule activities, such as going for a walk, that will keep you so busy you won't have time to think about food," says Abramson. Or suggest that the two of you sign up for a gym membership, so that all your get-togethers revolve around doing something healthy.Food Friend: The Temptress
Whether it's a pal who's always cooking every time you visit or a friend who likes to surprise you with a batch of homemade brownies or cookies, it's hard not to eat something that looks and smells fantastic and is right in front of you. "Many of us communicate warmth and love through food because that's how we were raised," says Warren Huberman, PhD, a psychologist at New York University Medical Center. There's nothing wrong with a friend occasionally bringing you a treat, of course. But if it becomes a pattern, that's a problem. "A buddy who constantly offers you food may be envious of your weight-loss efforts," says Stettner. "Subconsciously, she might want you to fail -- especially if she needs to lose pounds herself."
Step away from the table: Be open and honest with your pal: Tell her you're trying to watch what you eat, says Judith Beck, PhD, a psychologist in Philadelphia and the author of The Complete Beck Diet for Life. She should get the message. However, "if you find yourself having to explain this to her more than three times, question how good a friend she really is and whether she has her own eating issues or is trying to sabotage your diet," adds Beck. If you still want to save the relationship, find a way to keep your get-togethers food-free: Visit a museum, for instance. If she shows up toting a bag of goodies anyway, it's time to steer clear of her, Beck says.Food Friend: The Restaurant Junkie
Melissa Gibbs loves to go out to eat with her friends, but the cost has been steep: She's struggled with her weight for years. "When we sit down to dinner, someone orders a round of fancy martinis at 300 calories a pop, then a round of appetizers, and suddenly there's a day's worth of calories sitting on the table and the entree hasn't even arrived yet," says Melissa, a 39-year-old business development manager for a construction company in New Orleans. "Sure, I try to limit my intake or ask the waiter to leave off the mashed potatoes and put the sauce on the side. And all the while, I ignore the fact that I sound like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally."
"A group dinner gives you the green light to eat a lot, because the atmosphere is festive and others at the table are eating a lot too," says Binks. Considering that most restaurants serve gigantic portions and you're likely to be distracted by conversation, you probably won't even realize how much you're consuming until it's too late. "In theory, if you're in tune with your body and know when you've had enough, it shouldn't be a problem," adds Judith Matz, director of the Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating and the author of The Diet Survivor's Handbook. "But many of us don't listen to those internal cues, and that's where we get stuck."
Step away from the table: Arrive at the restaurant hungry but not famished; snack on a mix of carbs and protein, like a piece of string cheese and an apple, an hour before to take the edge off, suggests Matz. Order what looks appealing, but try to stick to an appetizer and a salad and just one drink, preferably wine, which usually packs less than half the calories of a margarita or a martini. Eat slowly and savor your food, stopping as soon as you start to feel full. (Take the rest home with you for another meal.) If you'd rather have an entree, choose grilled meat or fish, and ask for an extra serving of vegetables instead of a potato or rice. For dessert, order one or two sweets for the table to share.
Finally, help both your waistline and your wallet by making expensive restaurant meals an occasional indulgence. Instead, offer to host a monthly supper club, says Christine Avanti, a nutritionist in Los Angeles. "Ask guests to bring a healthy dish of their choice so you can enjoy each other's company without calorie overload."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July/August 2009.