If Your Friends Are Fat, Watch Out
You don't have to ditch your overweight friends.
Yes, a new study out today suggests that obesity is "socially contagious." In other words, if someone you call a friend becomes obese, your chances of joining her rise by 57 percent—even if she lives across the country, believe it or not. It's not that an actual bug is being passed from person to person; rather, it's that the more subtle transmission of behaviors (you start joining your friend at his weekly pizza and beer fest) or social norms (a much-admired college roommate is 20 pounds heavier since your last get-together) appears to alter a person's perception of what's OK.
But you can harness the power of social networks for good rather than bad, obesity experts say. The research, which appears in the New England Journal of Medicine, documents a phenomenon that has been long observed: "People are interconnected, and their health is interconnected," says Nicholas Christakis, a physician in the department of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of the study. Indeed, weight loss was also contagious—people who considered themselves the friends of folks that got skinnier lost weight themselves.
The authors found that the ties that matter the most are between friends, particularly of the same sex, though siblings and spouses also play a role. "We ought to change the questions we ask ourselves about how to alter our own health behaviors," says Katherine Christoffel, a pediatrician at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and medical director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children. "Now we ask ourselves, 'What can I do?' But instead, we can ask, 'What can I do for my friends and family, and what can they do for me?' "
• Include your family and friends in your weight-loss efforts. Don't just cook healthful meals for yourself; cook for the whole family. Organize a Sunday afternoon family soccer game. Start a walking group or a healthful recipe dinner club.
• Group-centered weight-loss programs like Weight Watchers may work better than just going on a diet by yourself, since they provide a built-in social network of people working toward a common goal. Research has shown that it's easier to quit smoking, stop drinking, and lose weight in programs that provide peer support.
• Find healthy role models outside your area. If none of your friends are interested in exercise or eating well, seek out some who are—Internet support groups are great for this. You may end up becoming the inspiration for your old friends.