Overweight? Blame Your Social Network

eating habits are contagious

Is being overweight or obese contagious? Are your friends making you fat?

Contagious |kənˈtājəs|
(of a disease) spread from one person or organism to another by direct or indirect contact: a contagious infection.

For the past several years, research studies have suggested that obesity might be contagious, like a virus, spreading from person-to-person. However, researchers now believe that the clustering of obesity stems from both biological traits (ie, genetics among siblings) as well as behavioral factors that are shared among those in your social network (ie, spouses, friends).

Overweight and obesity can be considered “socially contagious” because the experts believe it’s a case of birds of a feather…. feel better together (even when they’re overweight or obese). People within social networks share many of the same beliefs and tend to adopt similar habits and lifestyles, knowingly and unknowingly. And what you adopt from your friends can be a positive or negative influence on your health and weight.

In a landmark study by Harvard Medical School researchers and published in the in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, researchers tracked more than 12,000 healthcare professionals for 32 years and found the following risk factors of obesity among family members and friends.

They found that obesity risk was:

  • 57% greater if your close friend is obese;
  • 40% higher if you a sibling is obese; and
  • 37% greater if a spouse is obese.

What’s striking about these results is that same-sex friends have the most influence over our body weight, meaning that our behaviors are more important than our genes.

A new study from Arizona State University published this month in the American Journal of Public Health reaffirmed the findings of the large Harvard study.

The ASU researchers examined 101 women  aged 25-45 years old and nearly 1000 of their family and friends. By looking at the body mass index (BMI) of all of them, they found women are more likely to be obese if their peers are overweight or obese. In fact, women who had someone in their social network who was overweight or obese was 59% more likely to be overweight or obese and this effect was strongest among friends who were the closest. They also found that same-sex relationships impact our body weight more than those with the opposite sex. Ladies…I guess we can’t blame men for everything…

There are many theories on why our friends (primarily same-sex pals) make such an impact on our weight.  Some of the effects are thought to be subliminal so you won’t even know it’s happening.

If your friends are overweight it makes it easier to accept your weight…even if it’s more than what you’d like to weigh. In addition, your eating and exercise habits may be impacted by what your friends want to eat and do socially.  Or it may be the environment that both friends live or work in that make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. However, more research is necessary to fully understand what causes obesity clustering.

Overweight is the New Normal Weight

Since we live in a country where two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese, it’s easy for most normal weight individuals to gain weight to be more like the “norm.”  In fact, many parents of average weight children are criticized that their kids are “too thin.” Some obesity experts believe that many environmental and social changes are making it harder to motivate Americans to take being overweight as a serious health threat.  A few factors working against being a healthy weight include “vanity” sized women’s apparel; Lycra (read: S-T-R-E-T-C-H-Y) clothing; larger plates, bowls, glasses and utensils; wider seats in cars and movie theaters; and bigger portions served at restaurants and recommended by recipes.

Adopt a Healthier Social Network

While we want to accept our friends as they are (no matter their size) we need to be aware that we may be subconsciously adopting their behaviors. Here, five ways to reduce your risk of “friendly” weight gain.

  • Keep tabs on your weight by weighing yourself at least once a month and lose any weight as soon as you notice you’ve gained a pound or two.
  • Use online health and nutrition tools to help you get a different weight perspective. Visit sites like Spark People.com, WeightWatchers.com, Active.com, Livestrong.com or Curves.com and just read information and posts.
  • Use Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter to follow healthy “friends” like your dietitian friends at AppforHealth.com.
  • Have a discussion with family or friends that you think would be receptive to adopting healthier behaviors with you.
  • Join health clubs or fitness centers. Consider a local hiking, cycling or another activity-oriented club where you’ll be more likely to meet individuals who share your desire to be healthy and active.

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