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Peers have huge influence on our food choices

The Health Promotion Board's recent announcements underscore its larger efforts to shift consumers' food choices to healthier ones (Aim: 25% cut in S'poreans' sugar intake by 2020; Feb 7).

While it might be tempting to view increasing the supply of healthy food as the be-all and end-all of promoting healthy eating, one significant factor has been left out: our peers.

Eating is an inherently social experience. We ask our friends for suggestions on what to eat. We observe what dishes they order, and even follow their choices sometimes.

Our families also determine our dietary habits - for a large part of our lives, they decide what and how much we eat. Although we may not realise it, those around us have an undeniable impact on our food choices.

These influences seem benign but can have harmful effects.

For instance, teenagers may try to match their peers and drink as many sugar-sweetened beverages as their friends do, resulting in an intake of excess calories and a high body mass index.

Similarly, if those around us are increasingly obese, we may be influenced by their food consumption and exercise habits, and could be encouraged to indulge in obesity-causing behaviours as well.

Therefore, a variety of social network-based intervention policies could work in the war against diabetes.

Students could be trained to nudge their peers towards healthier food choices in a casual setting.

Health buffs in our work, school and residential communities could also be mobilised to encourage healthy behaviour.

Social media is an enabler, in this case, giving us an informal platform to spread a positive influence.

I hope the Health Promotion Board will keep the social aspect of healthy choices in mind as it crafts policies. This could help us create long-lasting societal change.

Roslyn Teng Yi Xin (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Peers have huge influence on our food choices'. Print Edition | Subscribe