A recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine was the cause of some interesting recent headlines: “Putting on Weight? Blame Your Fat Friend” or “Obesity Spreads to Friends, Study Concludes” or “Obesity is Contagious, Study Finds.”
The study followed a group of over 12,000 people from 1971 to 2003. The investigators knew, and tracked, each person’s weight and how it changed, knew who was a friend of whom, and which people were married, related, or neighbors among the study participants. They could follow patterns of weight changes among families, friends, and neighbors, so the study evaluated what happened as people became obese. The investigators wanted to find out if friends, neighbors, spouses, or siblings also became obese.
Are Your Friends Making You Obese?
Researchers found that people were more likely to become obese when a friend became obese. In the study, if you had a friend who became obese, there was a 57% chance that you would become obese as well. Neighbors becoming obese had no effect on whether the study participants became obese, but a spouse or sibling becoming obese did increase the chances of a study participant becoming obese by 37% and 40%, respectively. Interestingly, they found that even long distance friendships were a risk for “spreading” obesity.
There have been quite a few commentaries on the study results that center on everything from the “obesity epidemic” to the changing perceptions of body image in our society. Nutritionists and scientists have been blaming fast-food chains, soda, high-calorie coffee drinks and the break-down of the family.
A lot of this commentary is unproductive finger-pointing with a little fear-mongering mixed in to sell newspapers. I’ve found that this sort of media coverage tends to cause complacency and paralysis among my patients. People get depressed about their situation and they shut down. I can just imagine all of the “emotional eating” that follows a news story like this. It is a common story: “you are terrible, and here is why, and now we just happen to have a commercial that will tell you how to buy yourself a little happiness.” None of the media response seems to be offering hope or ways to make things better.
The Good News from This Discovery
The study also found that the same “obesity effect” between friends occurred with weight-loss. If your friend lost weight, then you were more likely to lose weight. That is the good news — and there is more.
The beneficial effect of social networks in improving health is nothing new. As a physician, I always advise my patients to find an exercise buddy or diet partner. People are more inclined to stick with a weight loss program or exercise regimen if they are working with a friend or family member. If one person loses steam, the other can help through the tough times. A little competition also tends to get people motivated.
Humans are social animals. The most successful health initiatives are often community based. Church-based blood pressure and diabetes initiatives are highly effective ways to make healthy changes in a community. School lunch and nutrition programs have helped improve student health and behavior. Physical education programs in schools have been shown to encourage life-long fitness. Morning mall-walking programs and corporate sponsored lunch-time walking programs are other social ways to improve health and fitness.
The hardest thing we can do is to make a change on our own. I realize that individuality and personal achievement are prized in our culture. But if you were to ask any highly successful person if they did it all on their own, the honest person would say it took the support and encouragement of others. As individuals looking to make a change, we tend to grasp for quick-fixes and magic-bullets. As a group working to make a change, we can work together and make changes in a realistic and reasonable way.
There are many ways you can use your social network to lose weight, stay fit, and eat right. Often, the simplest way to make a change is to just strike up a conversation. By letting your friends know that you are interested in living a more healthy life, you are likely to find that the same issues are on their minds. You can get things started by simply making weight control, healthy food choices, and exercise topics of discussion. Try bringing up SuperFoodsRx and see what others know. If it is something you think is important, it is likely that your friends, spouse, and family will also think it’s important. If no one brings it up, nothing gets done. So start the conversation and you’ll be well on your way to wellness.
Source: New England Journal of Medicine