Please view How Obesity Spreads Through Social Networks
copyright © 2007 Betsy L. Angert
I awoke to the question; Are Your Friends Making You Fat? Apparently, according to a longitudinal study involving 12,000 people, if your best friend is obese you are more likely to gain weight. Researchers say obesity is growing as an epidemic would. The results did not surprise me; the reaction to such a speculation did. People postured; “I make my own choices.” “My friends and family do not influence my decision to take good care of myself.” The research is flawed. The findings are faulty. It is not possible. Friends cannot make friends fat.
Yet, according to this well-respected study, Obesity Spreads In Social Circles As Trends Do. All around us we see overweight people. There are more hefty individuals than there were in years past. The chubby, chunky, and corpulent fill the streets. These persons find it difficult to sit comfortably in a chair. On airlines, the flabby stuff themselves into small seats. These individuals are stigmatized and suffer physically. There are many health risks when one’s weight is high.
As the researchers’ note, obesity is virtually epidemic. Scientists wanted to know why this is and what might be done. They explored.
The study, involving more than 12,000 people tracked over 32 years, found that social networks play a surprisingly powerful role in determining an individual’s chances of gaining weight, transmitting an increased risk of becoming obese from wives to husbands, from brothers to brothers and from friends to friends.
The researchers found that when one spouse became obese, the other was 37 percent more likely to do so in the next two to four years, compared with other couples. If a man became obese, his brother’s risk rose by 40 percent.
The risk climbed even more sharply among friends — between 57 and 171 percent, depending on whether they considered each other mutual friends. Moreover, friends affected friends’ risk even when they lived far apart, and the influence cascaded through three degrees of separation before petering out, the researchers found.
Several state, the theory is thoughtless. It is obvious, ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’ Even the esteemed doubt the veracity of the study.
Some researchers, however, questioned whether the study had fully accounted for other factors.
“People pick friends because they are similar in the way they eat or the way they move,” said Barry M. Popkin, who studies obesity at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It’s a nice piece of work but still stops short of being able to deal with causality.”
I understand this statement. Look around you. It seems the rotund rally round the obese. The plump find pleasure in spending time with others that will understand their plight. Often we see a heavy miss or missus with a portly mister.
Some say the truer cause of obesity is in the genes. Many a chubby child has a corpulent parent, or two. However, recent trends, a population growing large by leaps and bounds may disprove that theory
Any physician, dietician, or athlete might tell you there are other matters to consider. We must take cause and effect into account. Each of these experts has evidence. They can demonstrate numbers make a difference. Calories count. Exercise is important. If you want to lose weight, get off the couch.
Certainly, friends cannot make us eat what we choose not to. Most individuals think themselves freethinking, independent, separate from all others. Numerous persons interviewed on the topic declared, ‘Friends and family cannot and do not influence my food intake, or much else.’
Considering one ‘close’ association, I could make that argument. I was never a victim to peer pressure. I was, am, can be very independent. I revel in my autonomy. Acknowledging that I do care about every aspect of life, what others think, say, or do has an emotional effect on me. However, I do not recall a time that I let the desires of another affect my decisions. I did not, and do not, follow the crowd. Dawn’s eating did not direct mine.
Dawn and I have been friends since Middle School. We attended the same High School. We hung out together. Up until little more than a year ago, we lived only fifteen miles apart. At times, our weight was similar, on other occasions it was not.
I recall during our freshman and sophomore years in secondary school, Dawn and I spent hours doing whatever it was we did. We lunched; did dinner, and yes, of course, there was snack-time.
I often felt as though my friend was encouraging me to eat. ‘Here, have this.’ ”Try that.’ It is delicious. I recall contemplating, did Dawn want me to be fat? If I gained weight, would she think it fine for her to add a few pounds? It seemed to me, she wanted to be the thin one. If I lost weight, I sensed that she thought she too would have to reduce the tonnage. I cannot be certain; nonetheless, I experienced a subterranean competition.
Since childhood, I shied away from competition. Rivalries feel antagonistic to me then and now. Perhaps that is why I never fully related to Dawn. There was an air, an aura that I found disturbing. When we were young, some thought we looked alike. Each of us said aloud, we do not see it. Possibly, she too knew we were not close. We have known each other for decades, and no matter the miles between us, remain [barely] in touch. However, our weight gains and losses do not support the findings. Therefore, one might think that I would consider this study lacking; yet, I do not.
Appearances are deceiving. Often companionship is an illusion. People may seem close and still independent; However, I experience if an individual authentically admires their chum, they are influenced by that person, In my estimation, truth be told, Dawn and I are not good friends.
For me, observations corroborate the conclusion of this study. I think the results of this report are valid. Ample investigation reveals that the influence of friends reaches far beyond the superficial. Individuals do not merely imitate those they spend time with. Nor do people choose to engage with others that do as they do.
I believe this comprehensive report considers the cause and effect of obesity beyond calories and exercise. We all wonder why do the pounds not peel away when we diet and deliberately do our calisthenics. Many muse; why do I often slip back into old habits, or how might I adopt new, more productive, patterns of behavior.
Some seek social environments that promote weight loss. For a few, this works. However, consciously or not, for most, a little help from their friends does more than assistance from strangers might. Those we are fond of ignite a fire that fills the heart, mind, body, and soul. Miles do not lessen the effect of a strong association.
This research compares and contrasts the power of our connections. For centuries Social Scientist have acknowledged, people learn from those they most admire. Friends speak a language that cannot be replicated. Reciprocal reverence helps us to realize what we would never dare imagine on our own.
As emotional resources, friendships furnish children with the security to strike out into new territory, meet new people, and tackle new problems. Friends set the emotional stage for exploring one’s surroundings, not unlike the manner in which caretakers serve as secure bases for the young child.
I recall the influence of a true friend, two, three, four, or more had on me. My experiences replicate and validate the portion of the study that addresses the benefits of letting another human into your life. As the experts explain, much of this examination relates to weight gain, for currently, worldwide, and particularly in the United States, people are expanding their girth. However, not everyone engages in unhealthy practices. Numerous individuals lose weight with thanks to their friends. Others not feeling the need to transform their appearance chose healthier habits, just as those closest to them do.
The same effect seemed to occur for weight loss, the investigators say. But since most people were gaining, not losing, over the 32 years, the result was, on average, that people grew fatter.
Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a principal investigator in the new study, said one explanation was that friends affected each others’ perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad.
“You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you,” Dr. Christakis said.
Those we admire often look good to us; we see the beauty within. As we share, we have an opportunity to experience the wisdom that makes them as special as they are to us. In my own life, those physically near and far have the most amazing, beneficial effect on my decisions and me. Proximity, in an emotional sense enhances and enlightens my life. My bodily health is improved as is my psyche, all with a little help from my friends.
I met the person I often title my closest and deepest friend when we worked together. Danae does not enjoy disruptions. For her, chatting while at the office is a distraction. She is focused. I understand this. I too prefer being productive. Stopping to converse, for me, takes me away from the task I wish to complete.
While we worked, Danae and I walked and talked. We each apologized in advance for the possible lack of eye contact. We were only willing to split our attention slightly; however, not completely. Over time, we grew very close; however, I left that job. I lived almost thirty miles away and took a position close to home. Danae does not like to drive; nor do I. For years, Danae and I rarely, if ever saw each other. Nonetheless, we spoke on the telephone for hours at a time, almost daily. We discussed everything, and then some.
I recall sharing that my skin was dry. Every ointment and lotion I tried did little to relieve the itch. I was scratching myself until I broke the skin. I stopped using conventional soap. I switched to Cetaphil® recommended by dermatologist for babies. While this helped greatly, I never forgot the words Danae uttered as I searched for a solution. She said, “It is not what you put on your body; it is what you put in it.” Danae went on to explain much about diet, not in terms of losing weight, but in respect to good health.
I never forgot this statement. Slowly I began to consider what I put into my mouth. I studied the effects each food had on my health. The transition was measured; however, deliberate.
My friend Heather was also a huge influence on my eating. Heather is a nurse. Health is her main concern. Studying the body, chemistry, and physiology are her hobbies as well as her profession. Heather observed my poor eating habits and said so. Most of the calories I consumed were in the form of fluids. Heather spoke of the nutritional value of fruits and how juices cannot compare. I read much and realized she was right. I already understood the damage soda does. I lived it.
You may recall, dear reader, for decades I struggled with bulimia. The idea of putting solid food into my stomach and keeping it down was both a psychological problem and a physical peril. My body was no longer accustomed to digesting fodder.
Nevertheless, my conversations with Heather helped. Again, I progressed at a snails pace. Still, I did not forget all that Heather taught me. Ultimately, with much effort I was able to eat normally. To this day, I chomp on whole foods. I swallow my meals. The only fluid I consume, excluding a great soup, is water.
Friends or those we are fond of can truly influence our food choices. I know of mother and son that are not biologically connected. Circumstances help to create a unique and friendly bond. They spend much time together. They snack, eat supper, and raid the refrigerator together. Each is obese, and each has health problems. Nonetheless, emotionally they support the other.
Often, one human does provide reason, a rational for the actions of another. Interestingly enough, though the adage is “Monkey See; monkey do,” indeed, it man is the species that emulates the behavior of others. People wish to please their compatriots. In an experiment conducted by Yale University, graduate student, Derek Lyons scientists discovered, as Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten, two psychologists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland did. Three to four year old children imitate the behavior of their ‘teachers’ even if better options are obvious. Chimpanzees will only do as taught if they are unable to see other, superior opportunities.
Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn.
While researchers in the chimpanzee studies conclude imitation may be glorious, emulating another may also at times be hurtful. Other experiments tell us that at any age we engage in behaviors in order to accommodate or please others. Scientists in this novel study realize, we are likely to do as those we love do, even if they live far from us, or if they have habits that hurt their health.
Christakis and James H. Fowler of the University of California at San Diego took advantage of detailed records collected between 1971 and 2003 on 12,067 adults who participated in the well-known Framingham Heart Study. The researchers were able to construct intricate maps of the social connections among the participants, identifying spouses, siblings, neighbors, and both casual and close friends.
Sophisticated statistical analyses revealed distinct groupings of thin and heavy individuals, and found that siblings and spouses had less influence than friends, supporting the idea that the study’s findings were not the result of people eating the same food, engaging in the same activities or sharing genes.
And though environmental factors such as living in neighborhoods with lots of fast-food restaurants and no good grocery stores or sidewalks probably play a role, the researchers found no effect among neighbors unless they were friends, and being friends had an effect, regardless of whether they lived nearby. That ruled out common surroundings as explanations for the findings, the team said.
Fowler, speculating that friends could influence one another just by getting together once or twice a year, said, “We were stunned to find that people who were hundreds of miles away had just as much impact on a person’s weight status as friends who are next door. This is not due to people eating or exercising together.”
The researchers also found that one person’s weight gain increased another’s risk only if the second person considered the first to be a friend. If not, there was no effect. If each considered the other a friend, the effect was magnified.
“This shows that this is a social process that goes on here,” Christakis said. “If it was because you had two people exposed to the same fast-food joint or there was something in the air, then the direction of the friendship should be irrelevant. The fact that it is relevant helps us to exclude spurious or confounding effects.”
That was reinforced by the fact that people of the same sex influenced one another the most. In same-sex friendships, an individual was 71 percent more likely to become obese if a friend did. But friends and siblings of opposite sexes had no increased risk.
“People are more likely to copy the actions of people they resemble,” Christakis said. “What we think is going on here is emulation.”
Imitation, emulation, whatever we wish to call it, doing as those we love do may not be wise. It could be wonderful. Perhaps, if we are aware of the human tendency to mirror our mentors we will learn to choose wisely. We may wish to assess not only what our gurus gravitate to, but also what we make available. If we know that fast food is not healthy, might we consider not placing it in the path of one person, or his pal. If we are aware of our unhealthy habits and discuss these with those that care astounding change occurs, at least it did for the person I consider my soul mate.
I often find this tale hard to accept. However, I have heard it repeated often enough, perhaps I must believe it to be true. As I stated, I was anorexic, then bulimic for many years. Although I thought surely everyone knew, indeed, only a very few say they did. The person I call the yin to my yang, the one that I relate to in a manner I cannot describe definitely was aware of what I was doing.
Regrettably or perhaps fortuitously, she interrupted my deed one day. I was “caught in the act.” Yet, I trusted, she would not judge. Summer understood my pain, as I did hers. During a bad bout, Summer considered bingeing and purging. I am unsure how I knew this with certainty, for deciding to regurgitate food is not something either of us felt a need to discuss. Nonetheless, I had a feeling.
As with most of my friends in Southern California, we lived very far apart. We met while working together years earlier. One night, I telephoned. Summer did not answer. I had a feeling, I know not why. I left a message on her answering machine. The voice-activated recorder accepted my lengthy monologue. I believe I went on and on for near forty-five minutes.
I shared all the trauma I lived as a bulimic. I pleaded, asking Summer not to begin. I stated that, while I did not understand the physiology, neurology; nevertheless, I knew that this affliction was far more than a psychological choice. Once the path was taken, turning back was not possible. As Robert Frost offered, “The only way out is through.”
Later I learned, Summer was seriously contemplating the possibility. She was definitely disheartened and thought inhaling and exhaling food would numb the feelings. My speech took her by surprise. For whatever reason, perhaps because our friendship is as meaningful as it is, she was able to hear my words. Summer internalized the sentiment. She trusted my affection was authentic, as was my fear. Before she traveled too far, Summer decided to save herself.
I personally believe I did little; yet, in her mind I did much. If nothing else, Summer and I can give credence to this report. Friends are a phenomenal influence. We need not blame them for what we do. Let us embrace them. I do not think it dreadful that another can influence my choices. I consider the possibility glorious. Friends are forever; with thanks to them we are wiser. I can only speak for myself; nonetheless, may I say, I am grateful that those I love have the power to teach me.
The Thin, Fat, Fit, and Friendship . . .