Survey suggests obesity may be contagious

Published 5:39 pm Friday, July 27, 2007

By By ERIKA PICKLES / Niles Daily Star
NILES – Do the people we surround ourselves with on a daily basis effect our weight, especially our closest friends? A new study says, yes.
Researchers have suggested that obesity is socially contagious and can spead easily from person to person. They found that if someone's friend becomes obese or is obese, their chances of being obese increase by more than half.
It's not just friends who have this effect. Siblings, spouses and other family members also have a influence, although not as high as your best friends.
The study, conducted by James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, found a person's chances of becoming obese went up 57 percent if a friend did, 40 percent if a sibling did and 37 percent if a spouse did. In the closest friendships, the risk almost tripled.
Amy McKean, Senior Program Director and Fitness Director at the Niles-Buchanan YMCA, said she feels the study has some validity, but it is not the only reason and cause for Americans being overweight.
"I feel that this study is accurate to some extent. With families and friends, it is easy to fall into their same habits. You eat with them, hang out with, etc. so you are following their same habits. I would find this true in the example that if you spend most of your time with a certain friend who wants to eat bad foods all the time or is always eating out, then that is something that you will do with them."
McKean continued, saying if you want to work out, but your friend says they do not want to then you might decide not to as well.
"Friends and family are motivation for people. If you have someone to work out with, that gives you accountability and motivation. If you are often around someone who wants to eat healthy then that will give you more incentive to eat healthy," she said.
Researchers think it's more than just people with similar eating and exercise habits hanging out together. Instead, it may be that having relatives and friends who become obese changes one's idea of what is an acceptable weight.
This study could help explain why obesity is worsening across the United States and the world. About 1.5 billion adults worldwide are overweight, including more than 400 million who are obese. Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese.
"I feel that this is a reason that some people are over weight, but there are many other factors that play a part of obesity. Some people over eat because of stress, depression, a loss in their life, boredom, physiological triggers like glucose intolerance, anger, loss of willpower, etc. Some people do not work out because they have no motivation, they are scared to walk into a gym and get started, they do not believe in themselves, lack of will power, low self esteem," she said.
McKean also said she does not think this study is any big discovery that we have not known about.
"It only makes sense that if you are in a lifestyle where the people around you eat bad and do not work out, then it will be easy for you to fall into that same type of patterned lifestyle."
Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and Fowler, along with other researchers, analyzed medical records of people in the Framingham, Mass. 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 provided each time they were examined over a 32-year period.
After taking into account natural weight gain and other factors, researchers found the greatest influence occurred among friends and not in people sharing the same genes or living in the same household. Geography and smoking cessation had no effect on obesity risk.
On average, the researchers calculated, when an obese person gained 17 pounds, the corresponding friend put on an extra 5 pounds.
Gender also had a strong influence. In same-sex friendships, a person's obesity risk increased by 71 percent if a friend gained weight. Between brothers, the risk was up by 44 percent and 67 percent between sisters. In order to avoid becoming overweight or obese, McKean said it starts with you.
"To make sure you do not become overweight it has to be something that you really want to avoid and are passionate about doing. If not, you will not be able to avoid eating bad foods when your friends and family want to. You will not be able to say to that friend that you are still going to exercise even when they say they do not want to go."
McKean suggested that a place like the YMCA is the perfect place to start, meet people and get motivated.
"The YMCA offers classes for every type person – Yoga, aerobics, weight lifting, kickboxing, water aerobics, relaxation, boot camp and many more. We have personal trainers who can help a person know what type of program is best for their needs and keep them motivated while working out," she said.
It's also important to stick with a healthy eating habit.
"Eating has always been the social thing to do. Just think of all the times you have been at a gathering and you are not really hungry but everyone is eating so you eat too. Consciously or unconsciously we just do it out of habit," she said. Despite their findings, the researchers said people should not sever their relationships, as a lot of other research suggests that having more friends makes you healthier.