If you think having fat friends can make you fat, you’re not far off from the truth. It has been found that obesity is contagious, like a virus. This may seem hard to believe, but unfortunately, it is true. You’ve heard the expression, “Misery loves company?” Well, the same can be said of fat.
The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that followed 12,067 people for 32 years. Some of these peole were friends or neighbors with each other, or even related. Each person’s weight was tracked during this time period, lasting from 1971 through 2003.
Researchers were astounded to discover that subjects in the study were more likely to become overweight or obese when a friend gained weight. In fact, a friend becoming obese increased one’s chances of becoming obese themselves by a whopping 57%! Even if the friend did not live nearby, but lived hundreds of miles from a subject, that subject was more inclined to gain weight as his or her friend gained weight. Close friends seemed to have the most influence on each other. As the majority of people in the study gained weight instead of losing weight over the 32 year study, it wasn’t known if weight loss was as affected by friendship as weight gain was.
Why would having heavier friends tend to influence one’s weight? Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School who worked on the study said that friends change our perception of what the concept of “fat” is. If one of our close friends becomes obese, fatness, or obesity, doesn’t look as bad to us as it did before.
Doctors and researchers have extrapolated from this study to infer that this is part of the cause of the recent obesity epidemic in the United States. As more people become obese, more of their friends, in turn, also become obese. A whole social network is becoming fatter together, maybe at different times. Even a friend’s friend, a spouse’s friend, or a sibling’s friend becoming obese could influence a person’s weight gain.
Here’s an example of how it works: if Anna gains 17 lbs, then her friend June gains an average of 5 lbs. Some subjects in the study may have gained less, or more, than these amounts, but these were the average figures.
The people participating in this study all started out living in the same town: Framingham, Massachusetts. Researchers kept track of each person in the study for 32 years, having them list a close friend who would know where the person was at all times during that 32 year time period. Because this was such a unique study, its data is hard to replicate. It was so detailed and such a long-term study that it is one of a kind.
So, perhaps one of the best ways to lose weight is to avoid having fat friends? This may not be the answer for everyone. What might sound better, however, is helping your fat friends to lose weight with you. As the study has proven, there is truly strength in numbers when it comes to weight gain or weight loss.