A new series of studies identifies social norms that protect against obesity

Social norms – shared beliefs about what is socially appropriate that lead to an obligation to behave in a certain way – have a profound effect on eating behaviours.  ''Avoid unhealthy food'', ''watch your manners'', ''always eat breakfast'', ''avoid snacking'', ''eat slowly'', etc. affect what, when, how, and how often we eat. 

These are honed from birth through the positive or negative reinforcement given by parents, peers, media, and other social actors.  They are crucially important, not only because they shape our behaviours, but because there may be detrimental effects when they are violated.

A new series of studies – issuing from McGill University and the University of Alberta and published in the October issue of Appetite – examines Americans' beliefs about appropriate eating and how these shape behaviours and health outcomes. 

This groundbreaking work found that acting in a way that is consistent with norms such as ''eat only until content'', ''always eat breakfast'', ''avoid snacking'', ''eat fruits and vegetables'', and ''manage your portions'' was associated with a lower Body Mass Index, and greater body satisfaction and subjective health.

Conversely, violating these norms was associated with a higher Body Mass Index.

According to the researchers, Dr Laurette Dubé of McGill University and Dr Robert Fisher of the University of Alberta, this is a key finding.  ''With increased obesity rates, this finding is crucial and could help governments, as well as families, communities, media, businesses and other organizations, design more appropriate interventions to guide and shape what people believe about appropriate eating habits,'' says Dr. Dubé, James McGill Chair of Consumer and Lifestyle Psychology and Marketing.

According to Dr Fisher, since culture and society work together to create a coherent and self-sustaining system, ''this study's findings can help transform our current culture and society so that the healthy choice is the natural choice.''