Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Birds of a Feather Flock Together or Misery Loves Company. How your friends are getting you fat

This is the latest and greatest in health and fitness related news. Your friends are getting you fat and obesity is "socially contagious". I agree 100%.

Those who have gone out to dinner with friends and tried to make good nutritional choices have all experienced the peer pressure at the restaurant table. "What are you eating? Can't you just order straight from the menu without all of those changes"? It's a lot easier to cave in and eat to your hearts content (or discontent, really). It can be an uncomfortable situation when others comment on your eating habits and most people try to avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs.

Not only does this happen at the table, but with activities as well. An obese friend is less likely to want to go for an after dinner stroll in the neighborhood, a bike ride in the park or even tag along to the gym. The activity levels between fit and obese friends may be drastically different, thus leading the duo (or trio) to find more sedentary forms of entertainment.

The study was published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine and funded by the National Institute on Aging. The researchers found a person's chances of becoming obese went up 57% if a friend did, 40% if a sibling did and 37% if a spouse did. In the closest friendships, the risk almost tripled. On average, the researchers calculated, when an obese person gained 17 pounds, the corresponding friend put on an extra 5 pounds.

Researchers think it's more than just people with similar eating and exercise habits hanging out together. Instead, it may be that having relatives and friends who become obese changes one's idea of what is an acceptable weight. Obesity experts not involved in the research said the results back up what they have suspected all along - that people look toward one another for what is an acceptable weight. "If you're just a little bit heavy and everyone around you is quite heavier, you will feel good when you look in a mirror," said Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center.

That finding may support efforts to provide nutrition education in the workplace, where many people find their friends. There is also value in targeting interventions at the person in a family in charge of food buying and preparation. The bottom line is that no one can do it alone. It takes the support of friends and family, the entire social network, in order to be successful in leading a healthy lifestyle.

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