A possible contributor to the obesity problem is that there may be a social aspect to gaining weight. A study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine suggests that gaining weight is “socially contagious.” The study showed that social ties, even outside of family members, played a strong role in weight gain. For instance, a subject’s chances of becoming obese increased 57 percent if a friend also gained weight; if a spouse gained weight, the risk of obesity went up 37 percent. These relationships are obviously not genetic, so the social aspect is the culprit. Ordinarily, a normal-weight person has a 2 percent chance of becoming obese in any given year. Based on this study, that number increases by 0.4 percent with each obese contact that person has. On that basis, having just five obese social contacts doubles your baseline risk of being obese yourself. This finding held true even if the friend lived hundreds of miles away, so it’s more than just hanging out with people who have similar eating habits.
The researchers in this particular study proposed that the results may simply demonstrate our evolving ideas about what an acceptable weight is. For example, if you go back 25 years or more and look at the “fat” characters in TV shows and movies, in many cases they wouldn’t be considered as heavy by today’s standards. Regardless of the research theory, the bottom line is that we tend to hang out with people we like and have the most in common with. We’re influenced by and influence those we spend time with. We need to consider whether that modified perception is helping us achieve our health and wellness goals or not
What if your friends and family aren’t supportive of your goals? Janine, one of my patients, was very successful with her weight-loss efforts. On a weekend road trip with her daughter and her daughter’s friend, she stuck firmly to her eating plan. Whenever they stopped for gas, the daughter and friend would get candy or some other junk food, but Janine would snack on the fruit she had brought with her. She got a lot of grief for not giving in and eating junk food, but Janine was seeing success with her new lifestyle and was determined not to get sidetracked. During the trip, she realized something that was greatly helpful to her. She told me she realized she was being pressured to make bad choices because her daughter and friend were feeling uncomfortable about their own choices compared to hers. This insight gave Janine the self-confidence to take their comments in stride, stick to her own decision, and avoid any ripples in their relationship.