Is Obesity ‘Socially Contagious’?


I wonder, will this study put a new spin on the phrase: ‘With friends like these, who needs enemies’?

Results from a recent federally funded study suggest that even if your friends and family live far away, if they become obese, chances are you will too. Ok…what are the odds, you ask? Well, if your close friend is obese, you’re chances of ‘catching’ obesity go up 57%. In the very closest of friendships, the risk almost tripled. The surprise is that this percentage is significantly higher for friends than siblings or spouses (40% and 37% respectively). “We were stunned to find that friends who are hundreds of miles away have just as much impact on a person’s weight status as friends who are right next door,” said co-author James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego.

The study was published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine and funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Researchers analyzed medical records of people in the Framingham Heart Study, which has been following the health of residents of that Boston suburb for more than a half century. They tracked records for relatives and friends using contact information that participants (12,067 in all) provided each time they were examined over a 32-year period.

Social ties apparently had more of an influence than genetics. The researchers calculated that, on average, when an obese person gained 17 pounds, the corresponding friend put on an extra 5 pounds. Natural weight gain and other factors were taken into account. Geography and smoking cessation had no effect on obesity risk. Gender also had a strong influence. In same-sex friendships, a person’s obesity risk increased by 71 percent if a friend gained weight.

At first glance, it’s reasonable to simply think that people who are overweight have similar eating and exercise habits. But indications are that there’s more to it, and that if your relatives and friends are obese your concept of what is ‘an acceptable weight’ changes.

Researchers say that, potentially, more effective way to help the obese may be to treat people in groups instead of just the individual.

“Because people are interconnected, their health is interconnected,” said lead author Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a Harvard sociologist.

Will some people feel discouraged with this new information and be tempted to abdicate their individual responsibility for their weight? People already blame each other for passing on the common cold! I can just see a new kind of finger pointing from the fallout of ‘socially contagious’ obesity: “Don’t blame me for me being fat, I caught it from you!”

Well, don’t diss or ditch your friends just yet. “The last thing that you want to do is get rid of any of your friends,” says Fowler.” There is a ton of research that suggests that having more friends makes you healthier.”

You don’t need a new set of friends, but you may want a foster a new perspective. When making healthy lifestyle changes, it’s important to become more aware of your surroundings, relationships and attitudes. But, at the end of the day, it’s still up to you to concentrate on YOUR actions and YOUR healthy eating choices for weight loss success, regardless of what anyone else does. And who knows? Maybe your friends and family will ‘be infected’ with motivation, too!

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