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Food, family and diabetes: other ways to bond

Being sociable doesn't always have to involve eating... 

In her continuing series about the psychology of food and eating, Dr Jen Nash suggests how we could find ways to bond with family and friends – other than through eating.

Eating is a bonding experience for all of us, isn’t it? Our friends are eating, so we eat too. Sharing food can be fun and are great ways of nurturing and fostering connections. But is food the only way to bond with friends and family?

Or is it simply that when you’re with certain people you always go out for food, cook for each other or share a piece of cake with that coffee…?

Making connections

Eating with others is a great way of spending quality time and connecting with those we love and care about. While sharing meals with family and friends is one of life’s pleasures, many people feel that they have very little control over the food they eat when they’re with others. It’s as if spending time with friends and family always has to involve food and has become the default position: “But we always go for coffee and cake!”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, but if you’re trying to achieve or maintain a healthy weight, or struggling to manage your diabetes, you may want to increase your feelings of control around eating socially. If this is the case, then it’s a good idea to think about whether there are other ways, apart from eating, that you can use to bond.

Are you stuck in a behaviour rut?

As humans, we’re predictable creatures and we all have social ‘defaults’ or ‘scripts’ that we tend to play out time after time. Unconsciously, we tend to repeat expected behaviours in given situations.

We need to learn from this, identify what our personal ‘social script’ or scenarios about eating with others and, just like the director of a movie, decide whether or not the script or scenario needs changing or indeed entirely rewritten!

Think back over the social occasions you’ve been involved in during the last 6–12 months, events like:

  • Christmas/religious celebrations
  • birthdays
  • weddings
  • events with buffets
  • children’s parties/events
  • going to a restaurant – formal to fast-food
  • going for a coffee.

How predictable are these social events to you? Are you happy with the way things are? What could you change?

Marsha’s story

Marsha has been living with Type 2 diabetes for three years, and shares her experiences. “I started by thinking about how I usually ‘do’ having a coffee and realised that I always get a cake with it – even if I’ve just eaten a meal or whether or not I am actually in the mood for something sweet.

“I would get a cake because I had a script that said, ‘I always have cake with a coffee’. While this was a reasonable script when going for a coffee was just an occasional treat – now that I have a coffee most days as I am out of the house, it’s a recipe for disaster!

“I realised that I could experiment by challenging my thinking and asking myself whether I really did want a piece of cake. Coffee shops sells other snacks I could have instead or I could try having my coffee in the cafe with the option that I could always go back and get a piece of cake if it was still calling me!”

The irony is that Marsha may end up eating something with more calories than the cake, but that’s not the point of this experiment.

The point is that she’s learning how to figure out her ‘script’ and find ways to challenge it and not settle for a default script that doesn’t suit her. Of course, some of us may not go for a coffee as often as Marsha, but we can always practice these skills at other times – especially around the people we find it hard to say ‘no’ to when they offer us food.

Think about your behaviour and the script that goes with it in social situations. Here are some examples that may be familiar to you:

  • “We always have chips at the weekend”
  • “I have to eat a bit of everything at a party”
  • “I always buy something to eat with a coffee”
  • “I always accept free samples of food when offered them”

Can you change your ‘script’?

Did you make a decision to repeatedly behave in this way with the script that goes with it? Is it helpful? Do you want to experiment with changing it? If so, here are some ideas of other things you might like to do with friends and family – try one or two of the following and see how you get on:

  • play a board or card game
  • look at photos
  • go for a walk and talk
  • play a sport together
  • do a puzzle or crossword
  • volunteer for a local charity 
  • watch TV or a film
  • go for a drive
  • learn something new together
  • visit a historical place
  • do some gardening
  • go to a local attraction
  • try go-karting
  • go on a bus or train ride together
  • be by water (river, lake or garden pond).

And finally, feel free to simply drink the coffee – without the cake!

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