Are Your Friends Helping to Make You Fat?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on May 9, 2012 · 24 comments

Have you and your doctor ever seriously discussed your weight? Is your best friend or sister overweight? Were you and your husband overweight when you got married? All of these social ties may be contributing to your weight problem. How you ask? The spread of obesity has as much to do with our social contacts as it does with our genes.

Seventy percent of adults in the US are overweight, and the prevalence of adults who are severely or morbidly obese is the fastest growing group. Yet, only 12% have ever been told by their doctor, nurse, or other health care professional that they have a weight problem that needs attention. Older individuals and men are least likely to be diagnosed as obese.

According to a survey by the National Consumers League (NCL) there is a startling disconnect between the way people perceive their own weight and their actual weight. In the NCL survey over half the respondents still felt that obesity was an unmentionable subject in society and it was caused by a lack of willpower. More than a third surveyed felt overweight people should pay more for health insurance, and over one-quarter felt it was okay to poke fun at someone who weighs too much. If over 70% of Americans are overweight, in many cases these respondents were talking about themselves. Yet, they weren’t aware of that.

Weight is a very personal, complicated issue. Most view obesity as a legitimate medical problem, but few identify themselves as obese because of the social stigma attached to being overweight – 87% believe their body weight is in the socially acceptable range. Carrying extra pounds has become the new social norm.

In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Harvard and the University of California looked at the spread of obesity in the U.S. over the last 32 years. What they found was that social ties or your social network can be a major contributing factor. The researchers concluded that when a close friend or relative becomes obese, it changes what we consider normal. You like and respect this person in your social network, so you begin to think bigger is not so bad. As a secondary result, whether it is conscious or unconscious, we look to others for clues on how to eat, how much to exercise, and what is an acceptable weight. If people in your close social network are eating too much, exercising too little, and weigh too much, you are likely to adapt these habits and mimic their behavior. As you get heavier, you pass along these behaviors to others within your social network. Result – obesity spreads as a social epidemic.

If you have a close friend who is obese, your risk for obesity increases by 57%. Among adult siblings, one sibling’s chance of becoming obese increased by an average of 40% if the other sibling became obese. Sisters had a greater effect on other sisters (67%) than brothers (44%). Interestingly, males were more likely to be influenced to gain weight if their other male friends were heavy. In marriage, husbands and wives had an equal influence on the other. If one gained weight there was an approximate 40% chance the other would too.

Today we even select mates that resemble our own degree of body fat. In the 1940’s and 1950’s we married younger and had children younger. Mate selection was accomplished before people gained weight. Today we get heavier younger and marry and have children later, giving us more opportunity to select a mate based on weight. When two overweight people marry and have children they then pass along a double dose of genes that predispose to overweight.

We’ve made intense efforts to find biological reasons for obesity, but little has been done to examine the social spread of this disease. It may be much stronger than realized. The researchers found the social influence extended three degrees – to your friends’ friends’ friends. This isn’t all bad. If overweight is contagious, thinness can be as well. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have clearly demonstrated that you can modify a person’s social network and behavior for the better. Weight Watchers and other weight loss programs do promote weight loss through support and social networking.

Where AA succeeds and weight loss groups don’t is the AA premise that there is a need for lifetime support. Those with more experience (years of sobriety) mentor those with less. Without support, people almost always regain their lost weight. Maybe we need to devise public health programs that provide lifetime maintenance for those who lose weight, so their social network promotes a more realistic, slimmer body image with positive eating and exercise messages.

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