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"obesity is contagious"

An interesting article about an obesity study was just published in the NYTimes: "Obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus, researchers are reporting today. When one person gained weight, their close friends tended to gain weight, too."

The most interesting piece of the article was "You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you."

Have you ever felt "dragged" into gaining weight? What do you think about the acceptance of a larger weight and size as a culture?


Wed. Jul 25, 3:20pm

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I married a man who was seriously overweight (about 270); I was at a good weight (about 150 / 5' 7 1/2"). I immediately started to gain weight and kept gaining until I passed 190. Then I managed to brake and lose a few pounds. However I remained in the mid-180's until I joined PT. I am now at 148 and am thrilled. And finally, my husband has decided that he, also, wants to lose weight. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he will also succeed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007, 3:35 PM

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It is true. I moved to Canada from France, and I didn't even noticed how big I got until I went back for holidays. I need to lose 10 lbs at least and everyone in Toronto thinks I would be too skinny. Not so much in France.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007, 4:13 PM

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I know that I would have dedicated to losing weight much sooner if it weren't for my best friend, who is the same size as me. Our bodies are very similar and we wear the same size clothes. She has a lot of self-confidence, which is awesome, but it put me in the denial of thinking that its acceptable to be overweight. No matter how comfortable you are in your own skin, it isn't good for your health to carry excess weight on your body. It took me a while to take that seriously and act accordingly but I think the realization would have happened for me sooner if I was the "big girl" out of all my friends instead of having a friend that made me feel totally normal. She's been a great support though so its not all bad. Just goes to show that obesity study is totally right. Its unfortunate we have to judge ourselves through others' eyes.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007, 4:24 PM

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I gained about 15 pounds along with my 3 roomates in college so I believe it happens.

Just take a look at the epidemic in America... We are all following each other's leads.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007, 4:24 PM

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my husband is thin as a stick and i am about 35lbs overweight. we have been together for 8yrs and he still hasnt gained an ounce.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007, 6:55 PM

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Thursday, July 26, 2007, 10:26 AM

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My fiancee isnt overweight, but she always keeps junk food around. It does for sure rub off (I've recently gained about 5 pounds back - I should have been looking at the scale a bit more)

The worst is cooking two seperate dinners.

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 10:43 AM

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I'm from Europe, and when I came over to America as a kid, my mom weighed about 125 pounds. She escalated to about 169 in the course of 5 years withought even knowing it. We live in a culture of consupmtion and overindulgence, and obesity goes hand in hand with that. Back in the old country we focused a lot more on things besides food, whereas everything here revolves around it. Gatherings, weekends, outings, they are all somehow focused on food.

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 10:49 AM

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In high school, I had two close friends. One of them has been skinny her entire life. The other one lost a lot of weight during one year (and kept it off). I've just remained an average size throughout. However, my *concern* with my body shape has increased as my friend lost weight. Does that say anything? I'm not sure.

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 10:52 AM

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First read leads to skepticism

Report was interesting...think I'll go back to the original study too and take a look.

I read with skepticism... there is such a sound byte approach to reporting and I am afraid people will take this extremely complex multidimensional problem, reduce it to the reporting sound bytes and use the "information" to villify obese people. Great help!

As we have grown obese as a nation there is some level of acceptance, sort of...we see it it seems more a reality. But I wonder how much it is a driving force. Friendship happens for a variety of reasons....there is identification on a wide range of levels. Maybe some of those factors of identification (like stress level or quiet sedentary life style) are factors that can contribute to obesity...but I wonder how much emulation of a friend with a weight problem is the driver.

That's just my first impression reading the report....I worry how it will be interpreted. I worry parents will discourage their children from making friends with other children who struggle with weight problems...I worry people who need love and support will be abandoned....that a type of anti-fat prejudice will be OK. There is so much more to this problem. to look at the real study....

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 11:11 AM

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I have a bunch of college friends who are seriously overweight. THough they spend a fair amt. of time together, I don't spend much time with them and really can't eat with them. But I do believe that they have a misery loves company attitude as there are is shocking amount of comiserating among them about weight, but no real activism behind any suggestion to lose it. The only up side that I can see is that when I'm with them I'm even more careful about eating and more fired up about my own weight loss. They (frankly) gross me out.

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 11:13 AM

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OP here - Good call 11:11. I'm usually a huge skeptic of studies, results and methods as well. But the fact that they followed such a large group of people for over 32 years is impressive.
Also, on the positive side, they did see a correlation for those who lost weight, their friends did as well.
I think you raise a good point about the worry of parents telling their kids not to associate with overweight kids. But don't we do that as a culture, too? I've definitely caught myself thinking negative thoughts and having feelings of disgust when I see a really large person. And I feel horrible about it!

Thanks everyone for the fantastic comments!

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 11:56 AM

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virus, I think not.

I agree that you can be around other people and pick up habits from them and mannerisms, but that isn't the same as picking up a virus. I haven't read the study either but if they compared it to a virus, that doesn't seem like the right terms. You can be around people who exercise a lot and feel inspired to exercise so would you equate that to catching a virus, no. You can be around friends whom like to fly toy helicopters but they aren't getting a virus they were just enjoying the same activities and that is what I believe we do, we enjoy eating with others and socializing, its just that simple. Virus, schmirus.

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 12:46 PM

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Be careful how you interpret research

I am a professional researcher, and I shuddered when I saw the news that came out on this.

No, the research did NOT suggest that obesity is anything at all like a virus, bacteria, or is contagious in the traditional medical sense of the word. They used the term "socially contagious," which I think was a poor choice of words to express that our behavior can be influenced by our social network.

This new analysis of the data from the very famous Framingham study showed a strong association between the level of obesity among persons who shared a social relationship but not necessarily a genetic one.

Unfortunately, the news headlines all over the internet are saying silly things like "It may be your best friend's fault that you're fat."

That's a bunch of hooey.

The article at the link I've provided offers some reasonable explanations for this phenomenon. I have another theory that I don't think they discussed:

Food and food behaviors are an integral part of our social relationships with friends and family. Most of us socialize by sharing meals and/or drinks at one anothers' homes or at restaurants, bars, sporting events, social occasions, etc.

Most of us tend to socialize with people that we have a lot in common with, and that frequently includes shared tastes in food. Who doesn't have a favorite restaurant or bar where they like to meet their friends? Or we enjoy getting together over a homecooked meal of dishes we know our friends enjoy.

If you and your circle of friends share food preferences for especially healthy food or a very active lifestyle, the probability that many of your group will become overweight is much smaller than when your group enjoys more sedentary group activities accompanied with higher calorie and fatty food choices.

So .... please look past any research you see in the news and find a credible source of scientific information.

This reminds me of one I saw a couple years ago that said something like, "Diet sodas CAUSE people to gain weight." What???? How can a low-calorie beverage CAUSE weight gain? That was not at all what the study said. It talked about the tendency for some (not all) people to feel hungry after drinking sodas sweetened with artificial sweeteners and then eat a high-calorie snack, or to think the low-calorie drink is a license to pig out on unhealthy foods. Those are important things to know for dieters so they can make informed decisions about their food choices and be aware of how their own behavior and weight loss efforts are impacted. But silly reports like this do nothing more than misinform people who are already struggling with their weight issues.

Overweight is too serious a health issue to be dismissed this way.

Please look at sound medical and scientific information rather than a bunch of baloney splashed across the internet.


Thursday, July 26, 2007, 2:38 PM

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I think the fact that so many of our socializing revolves around food (as previous mentioned).

Personally, I have a wheat and corn intolerance that makes eating out very difficult and usually quite expensive- or alternatively, entirely boring. So I don't like to go out for drinks, for coffee or for dinner. It makes meeting new people a little difficult, and it means some people I see less because that's all they know how to do for get togethers.

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 3:38 PM

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OP here - 2:38 - Thanks for your opinion. I too am a professional researcher and I really enjoyed the discussion this study caused. I agree the headline is very misleading and I can understand how people might interpret that.
But isn't the word "epidemic" implying the spreading of a virus of some sort, too?

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 5:43 PM

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I have found that on many occasions the people I spend a lot of time with tend to gain weight. Like 50 pounds, some less but it surprises me. The only thought I can put with that is that I do the cooking and they enjoy the food.
Now on the other hand when I diet and make healthy food these same people don't lose weight like I do, they continue on. I have been out of one persons life for two years now and he still is as heavy as he was when we were together.
So I don't necessarily think that just because I am on a diet and doing well the others I spend time with will as well even if I am the one feeding them most of the time. There is still time for them to eat when they are apart from me.
I guess what I am saying is either way you can't blame it on one person just because a group follows. I think it is a very complex issue. But I have noticed how it "seems" to be true,

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 11:29 PM

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I can agree with the study. In college I gained like 75lbs. all of my friends gained weight as well, but not as much as me so I think some of it has to do with a persons propensity to gain weight as well as who they are surrounded by.

Thursday, July 26, 2007, 11:35 PM

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If anyone's interested, here is the actual study from the NEJM


Thursday, July 26, 2007, 11:54 PM

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This was definitely the sound bite of the day... I listened to public radio during a long commute (both ways) and must have heard it 4 or 5 times.
My husband and I tend to be healthy/unhealthy together. If one of us starts eating a lot of goodies and ignoring our health, the other one gets sucked in (all too easy). If one us is working toward being healthier, the other one usually gets on board (as we're doing now).
I definitely agree that there is a danger toward blaming already overweight people for spreading their bad habits around. Like overweight people need more problems. The benefit for me is to realize that if I'm hanging around someone with different habits, I need to be aware of what I'm doing and eating or I can lose sight of my own goals.

Friday, July 27, 2007, 12:00 AM

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I find this to be true in my life. My spouse does lose weight when I'm on a diet, even though he isn't consciously trying. My sister and I both lost 20 pounds at the same time, even though we didn't plan it together and we live overseas from each other. And when I dine with this particular obese individual I know (who is obese because of her eating habits - whenever I see her she's eating something fatty), I tend to eat more and she encourages me to eat more.

About parents not letting their children be friends with overweight children - I think there is something to that. When I was 12 or so, an overweight friend introduced me to all sorts of junk food that I was never interested in touching before, such as chips and dip. Maybe parents should make their children be friends with skinny kids along with overweight ones, to even things out.

Saturday, August 18, 2007, 9:24 PM

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I think spouses influence each other more than close friends, because they're sharing food and groceries. I work with a guy who is always talking about losing weight, but never does anything about it, and I know that he will never be able to lose weight unless his wife makes a similar commitment, just because of the food she buys and cooks.

On the other hand, I have lost a ton of weight recently, but am home with kids and am not influenced by people at work (where fatty and sweet snacks are an everyday thing!) The women at my workplace all complain about needing to lose a few pounds but all eat and bring snacks all the time.

Saturday, August 18, 2007, 11:34 PM

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I would have to say that those you surround yourself with everyday influence you. This may be your co workers or your spouse. In my case I never really saw my self as heavy because everyone I work with was either my size or larger and those that were normal weight I figure were just stick figures. Now that I am at a normal range I can see how heavy those around me are which I was at not too long ago.

Now that I have lost so much weight many at work are striving to do the same thing and my husband has tried to as well. It's very strange I guess they figure if you can do it so can they. And for the most part they are right its all in how bad you want it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008, 10:59 PM

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for me part of my motivation besides my personal reasons to lose weight was becaus eim surrounded by very supportive people in my life that are also losing and are very encouraging for me to . bu ti am torn btwn two worlds because my husband who isnt overweight loves snacks and junk food and their always around tempting me but on the other hand he is also very supportive of my weight loss so i guess i dont feel as tempted to eat them. and since i usually do the cooking i am also trying to incorporate healthy foods into his life and my daughters and he is very supportive of that

Thursday, April 10, 2008, 12:30 PM

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