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Let’s Get Fat Together

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, July 27, 2007

Here at the Pundit, we are having trouble keeping up with the volume of ridiculous research we are sent every day. Actually the research is not ridiculous, but the over-the-top claims made by the researchers often are ridiculous.

We talked about a study on grapefruit and breast cancer here and about consuming extra produce here. Now we have a study purporting to tell us that if we want to reduce obesity in the U.S., we shouldn’t focus on getting people to eat right or exercise, but instead focus on the thinness of their friends:

Obesity contagious among friends, US study shows

The United States is often tagged with the dubious reputation of being the most overweight country in the world. Now a new study shows that obesity is contagious and that it is actually people’s friends who are helping to make them fat.

Over the last 25 years, obesity among American adults has more than doubled, with a third of people now considered extremely overweight. Obesity is at record levels in the US, and some researchers call it an epidemic.

While factors like poor diet and lack of exercise certainly contribute, for the first time research shows obesity is actually contagious, spreading from one friend to another.

Study co-author James Fowler is an associate professor of political science at the University of California in San Diego. “A person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57 percent if they have a friend who becomes obese,” he said. “Similarly, a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 40 percent if they have a sibling who becomes obese, and a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 37 percent if a spouse becomes obese.”

In medical terms, being obese means having a body mass index greater than 30.

Dr Fowler says his study shows siblings, spouses and neighbors have less influence than friends when people decide how much to eat, how much to exercise and how much weight is too much to put on.

“Friends who are hundreds of miles away have just as much impact on a person’s weight status as friends who are right next door,” he said.

“So what this suggests is that it’s not the case that this causal relationship is due to people eating together or exercising together; rather, it has to do with them sharing ideas about what healthy behavior is like.”

The study was done in conjunction with Harvard Medical School.

Researchers analyzed data taken over 32 years for more than 12,000 adults who were already part of the Framingham Heart Study.

Dr Matthew Gillman is the director of the Obesity Prevention Program at Harvard Medical School. “While genes can certainly affect whether one individual is obese compared with another, genes can’t really explain the obesity epidemic, which is a phenomenon of the last 30 years,” he said.

The spread of obesity through social ties could have important implications for how public health officials tackle the epidemic.

Dr Richard Suzman is the director of the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Ageing. “I think what this also does is that it takes what was seen as a non-infectious or non-contagious or non-communicable disease and shows that it’s clearly got communicable factors,” he said.

If the current weight gains continue, 41 percent of Americans will be obese by 2015. If nothing is done, obesity will soon become the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

This is one of those studies that is almost certainly true and almost certainly doesn’t mean what the researchers want to imply.

Throughout history, the physique that is praised has varied. There was a time that plump meant you were upper-class because you could afford food. Today lean is in, possibly because it means one can afford time at the gym and, maybe, a personal trainer.

So yes, the opinions of one’s peer group is highly likely to influence what people deem acceptable.

This applies to the type of physique that is acceptable and the type of diet that is acceptable. No upper-class woman will tell her fellow ladies who lunch with her that she wants to go out for fried chicken and biscuits.

So in this case, the study may provide a useful insight for Fruits & Veggies — More Matters — - to focus on the social group. If the “acceptable” meal is a salad and sashimi, this may actually change the way people shop and eat.

At the same time, the study doesn’t seem to have rigorously controlled for coincident indicators. It is, after all, also true that friends are often in similar situations, so, for example, it is very common for groups of friends, often about the same age and of similar marital status, to have children at the same time — and having newborns affects one’s time allocations and diet. Friends often transition together from school to work, from urban to suburban living, into retirement.

All this being true does not turn obesity into a “communicable disease.” Indeed it may just mean that friends go through life together, wooing mates together, getting married together, having kids together and, yes, getting fat together.

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