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Peer Pressure: How It Affects You

How you eat, exercise, and feel is influenced by your friends.
By Katrina Brown Hunt
WebMD Feature

Teens clothes shoppingPeer pressure is more than just someone handing you a cigarette or a drink and saying, "Hey, try this." It can affect almost anything you do -- and you may not even realize it.

When you're a teenager, friends play a huge role in helping you figure out who you are.

"It's really subtle," says Eileen Stone, an adolescent psychologist at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. "You can start the day one way, and after being with your friends, come home with almost a different personality. You can end up absorbing their attitudes, or the language they use, as you work on your own identity."

That can be a good or bad thing. If you're trying to make positive changes in your lifestyle -- such as eating healthier or exercising more -- keeping the right people around you can mean the difference between success and failure. Think about it: Do your friends make it easier or harder for you to make healthy choices? And if things aren't going right with your friends, can you fix it without feeling like you're creating a lot of drama?

Don't judge your friends -- after all, they're going through the same things you are. Instead, on a regular basis, "Take a few moments and connect with yourself, and think about how your friends make you feel," says Charlotte Reznick, a child educational psychologist and professor at UCLA. "Ask yourself, 'Does this match who I want to be?'"

Consider these three areas: the way you want to eat, how much you want to exercise, and your general mood. Then figure out how peer pressure is helping or hurting your goals.

Peer Pressure and Eating Healthier

A lot of hanging out with friends involves eating, like going out for pizza or getting snacks after school. Whether you're blowing off steam, celebrating something, or just killing time, food is an easy way to bring people together. But food outings can be challenging when you're trying to make healthy eating choices.

Tough Situation: Your friends want to get fast food after school. Whenever you go, everyone gets combo meals -- burgers, fries, big sodas. If you're trying to eat healthier, you might feel that by not getting the usual, you're opening yourself up for annoying questions: "Are you on a diet?" "Do you think you're fat?"

Low-Drama Solution: You don't need to make a big announcement about the fact that you're trying to eat better. "You want to protect yourself from the group mass-mentality where people are more likely to give you a hard time," says Reznick. "Instead, if you want to talk about your goals about eating healthier, pick just one or two trusted close friends who will back you up."

At the restaurant, though, think about ways you can steer the situation to healthier options. Maybe that's just getting a smaller order. "Maybe get a sandwich but no fries, or make your drink a diet soda," suggests Teresa Beach, a registered dietitian at Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. "Or just say, 'I'm not hungry,' and make sure you have a snack before you go out with friends." You could also bring your own snack, and say you're saving money for something like a car.

Another idea is to think about suggesting activities where food isn't the only focus -- like getting a snack in the mall food court, but spending more time walking and shopping.