The Benefits of Social Support for Your Healthy Lifestyle
Social norms and societal modeling and expectations contribute an overall context that promotes certain eating behaviors. However, when making specific dietary and lifestyle choices, like exercise, reactions from close friends and family—positive or negative—also exert a profound influence. We are social creatures who live naturally in community. Making healthy lifestyle choices flows naturally out of feeling connected to the people around you. The degree of social connection or isolation you feel may even influence something as basic as the variety in your diet. In a large, observational study of 20,000+ adults over age 50, being single, widowed, or having less frequent contact with friends was associated with less variety of fruit and vegetable intake, and it got worse for people who lived alone and also had less frequent contact with friends—they had even less variety than in those who were just single.
Social support from friends and family in the form of offering encouragement, establishing connection, providing accountability, and modeling or sharing a target behavior has been shown to help improve adherence for a wide variety of health behaviors, including taking medication, eating less fat, and exercising more. Doctors and the media also play an important role in facilitating healthy behaviors, and women seem to be naturally inclined towards dietary support, because both women and men whose friends are women report more active verbal encouragement for healthy behaviors. Spouses tend to have the biggest influence on each other, and among couples, it’s been shown that an individual who starts a new healthy behavior, such as quitting smoking, is much more likely to succeed if their partner already has the healthy new behavior (doesn’t smoke). It’s a great reason to try to hang out with the people who are already doing and eating what you want to be doing and eating yourself!
Many of these results emerge in the context of a research intervention, which means someone else was providing the encouragement, feedback, and connection, but we can take a lesson from experiments like this and apply this information to inform how we can ourselves create a structure to support us through a dietary transition and beyond. The more role models, friends, and acquaintances we have who eat plant-based, the more we can share camaraderie over eating and celebrate our connection with food.
If you’re not sure what kind of support you could be looking for, it may help to paint a picture of what supportive relationships look like.
Social support from friends and family for your diet spans a spectrum of passive acceptance to active participation, and might take such forms as:
- Respecting your choices, giving you the space to make your own decisions
- Exhibiting open-minded curiosity about your diet
- Encouraging your eating intentions and celebrating your successes
- Accommodating your food choices by offering food that is compatible with your diet
- Offering to go to restaurants where you will be likely to find something to eat
- Checking in with you about whether you will be able to find food in a particular location or situation
- Eating a similar diet and sharing food with you over meals, potlucks, or other social gatherings
- Teaching, leading, or otherwise inspiring you to make even healthier choices through their own modeling
At the same time, if you don’t live in a particularly supportive place or social context, you may be accustomed to a certain level of social disharmony or even criticism around your diet. It’s a good idea to critically evaluate what kind of influences and messages you receive from the people around you and identify whether the interactions seem like any of the following:
- Displaying a lack of knowledge and interest in plant-based diets in your community
- Expressing skepticism that you could be eating a healthy diet or that what you are doing is good for you
- Voicing energetic criticism of your food choices
- Discussing your choices with other people in a critical or unkind way
- Making little to no effort to accommodate your food choices, either at home or in the choosing of restaurants
- Offering you food you don’t want to eat or pressuring you to “just have a little bit” even though you’ve explained you’re not eating certain foods anymore
- Exhibiting tension, hostility, or derision when the topic of your diet comes up
If any of these non-supportive kinds of feedback rings a bell, it may be a sign you need to take a step back and evaluate how close to these people you want to be and how much of an effort you want to make to preserve the relationship, and in what context.
If your new way of eating causes you to feel alienated from the people you’ve known and loved for a long time, you may be tempted to discontinue your healthier diet, which, of course, isn’t what we want to happen. You certainly want to maintain the majority of your relationships. However, you may need to figure out who can tolerate and respect your choices, even if they don’t eat that way themselves, and who can’t.
For the people who can’t, you’ll need to make a bigger effort to redirect your energy in connecting with them so that you can connect with in circumstances that do not involve food.
- Conklin AI, Forouhi NG, Surtees P, Khaw KT, Wareham NJ, Monsivais P. “Social relationships and healthful dietary behaviour: Evidence from over-50s in the EPIC cohort, UK.” Social Science & Medicine 100 (Jan 2014): 167-175.
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- Jackson SE, Steptoe A, Wardle J. “The Influence of Partner’s Behavior on Health Behavior Change The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.” JAMA internal medicine 175, no. 3 (Mar 2015): 385-392.
© 2016 Micaela Cook Karlsen
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