Your Social Network Could Be Making You Fat (Or Thin!)


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  66 comments   :  11,988 Views

We've always assumed that friends can be a powerful influence in our quest to be healthier. If your friends support your weight loss efforts, that can make the process much easier versus having to go-it alone. But new research is proving that the affect of social networks is more powerful than we might have expected.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at how social networks affect health. Researchers analyzed data from the Framingham Study (which began in 1948 to analyze the risk factors for heart disease.) They found that participants influenced each other's good and bad health behaviors just by socializing. "When a Framingham resident became obese, his or her friends were 57 percent more likely to become obese, too. A Framingham resident was roughly 20 percent more likely to become obese if the friend of a friend became obese ó even if the connecting friend didnít put on a single pound. Indeed, a personís risk of obesity went up about 10 percent even if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight," according to the study. The theory is that people may be able to pass along a social signal without acting on it themselves. So if you have an obese friend, even if you don't become obese yourself, that could mean you're more accepting of obesity. And those "signals" could have an influence on others in your life.

Obesity was only one aspect of health that appeared to be affected. The study also looked at happiness, loneliness, smoking and drinking. They all followed the same pattern- friends were more likely to exhibit similar behaviors. One interesting result from the study was that spouses didnít appear to have as big an effect on each other as friends. According to the study, "If a male Framingham subject had a male friend who became fat, his risk doubled, but if his wife became obese, his risk was increased by only 37 percent." The researchers theorize that more often, we compare ourselves to people of the same sex when it comes to body image.

My mom has been an on/off dieter for most of her life. But I notice that she gets more motivated to lose weight when her friends decide it's time to get healthy too. And when one falls off the wagon, it seems to be a domino affect.

What do you think? Are you influenced (in good and bad ways) by your friends?

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  • 66
    Great article!!!! The best accessory is your confidence!!! I have to remember that sometimes! : ) - 3/29/2015   11:05:31 AM
  • 65
    This is so true.....2 of my girlfriends, mother and daughter all lost weight around the same time. Then we all went into a slump and gained weight at the same time, and what is amazing we all basically gained about the same amount 30 pounds. - 2/5/2010   10:09:15 AM
  • 64
    I absolutely believe your friends can have a negative or positive influence. Only one of my friends is dedicated to fitness and health, and she's a breath of fresh air. With my other friends, I try very hard to concentrate on being the strongest personality so that I'm a good influence on them instead of them being a bad influence on me. It's a constant battle because it's always easier to do nothing than to get off your duff and move! - 2/5/2010   8:40:05 AM
    i agree a thousand percent. friends can indeed influence you in this regard. most of my friends are not active and prefer to meet out for food and cocktails....its rarely anything else..i know that i've taken on more negative fitness and health habits and my circle of friends has remained the same for over 10 years. - 10/18/2009   2:57:29 PM
  • HOTMAMA1980
    This is very interesting. My co-workers are heavy drinkers and nearly all of our socializing involves cocktails at a bar or club. My friends from college are all overweight and we always meet up over food, whether it is at a restaurant or someone's house. I guess I'm getting negatively influenced from both sides? - 10/8/2009   10:06:48 AM
  • 61
    Have a great support system in family and friends and sometime influence them to chose a more healthy selection unfortunately sometimes they lose more weight than me and so makes me work harder toward my goals - 10/2/2009   1:12:21 PM
  • 60
    Yeah this is good, cause I be chatting to a friend on Yahoo Voice thing and He always says while chatting to me " I'm Hungry " I told him nicely please don't say that while chatting to me as I start to think i want something to eat as well. very good read ! - 10/1/2009   6:09:19 AM
  • 59
    I would definitely agree with the study -- I recommitted myself to a healthy lifestyle just two months ago, and yesterday I went with a friend to help her pick out her first proper pair of running shoes since high school gym class. - 10/1/2009   2:48:18 AM
  • 58
    I agree with those expressing concern about ostracization of overweight people. It - shunning - already happens for so many other reasons, particularly in the "recovery" milieu, and it seems like one more way for some people to get paranoid about friends - heck, aqcuaintances - who aren't "working the program" perfectly.

    I also wonder about all these sociological studies and the conclusions being so quickly drawn from them. I would have many questions for the researchers - if I had time to delve into this! - 10/1/2009   12:32:08 AM
  • 57
    I haven't so much noticed being affected by the way my friends were acting, as notice that I feel more like dieting and have more of a positive attitude in general when I am socializing. I have more than once doctor who has told me for more than a few years that I was staying home because of the epilepsy and just being a recluse, and when you do that you just feel like no one cares about you or your weight and you quit caring too. I didn't go to dances or any thing the only place I can say I went was to bed. - 9/30/2009   7:25:26 PM
    How interesting!
    Friends I could believe easily, but friend of a friend, and friend of a friend of a friend? - 9/30/2009   3:22:14 PM
  • 55
    I am out there getting all my friends to live a healthier life!!I do not drink or smoke so all my friends who do both DO NOT when we are hanging out together .They see that I am a healthy person NOW then in the past & they ask me what I do.. WELL I just tell them & hand them a card from SP!!.. - 9/30/2009   2:19:30 PM
  • 54
    I agree wholeheartedly! This was a really difficult dilemma for me for a long time. When I go out to eat with someone who always makes healthful selections (and incidentally, never has a weight problem), I would feel that I should do the same, not because my friend would say anything to me if I ordered something obviously very fattening, but it's just human nature to compare yourself to your peers. Unfortunately, I seem to have more social occasions with friends who use eating out as an excuse to binge, and in those circumstances, I used to be more likely to make poor choices also. I have made a lot of progress on this area, but I actually found myself avoiding those trickier situations for awhile until I gained enough confidence to enjoy the company of my friends without fear of "blowing it". The more times I have a successful experience, the better I feel about it, and the braver I feel about the next time. Sometimes people will make comments about "you're being so good and I'm being bad", or tease me about it, but you can tell they're proud of me for how much progress I've made. I just keep inviting everyone to join SparkPeople and keeping my fingers crossed that more of those who have joined will actually use it. There's something about being told that you have inspired others that adds a feeling of responsibility, too. Like it or not, I guess we do all influence our friends by our choices, whether it's for the good or the bad. - 9/30/2009   12:48:51 PM
    I agree that who you are with influences your behaviour. I eat more healthy things when I am with my daughter who runs marathons, triathalons etc. than when I am with my girlfriend who is overweight. - 9/30/2009   11:46:51 AM
  • 52
    I think others definitely influence food choices. Both my BFF's are overweight. We feel comfortable overeating with each other. In fact, it is one of the main forms of entertainment. I am trying to change this, but years of habits are hard to change. - 9/30/2009   11:31:32 AM
  • 51
    I agree but also disagree. Most of my friends are overweight and while they are proud and supportive of me, the foods they eat does tempt me. But on the other hand, I get motivation from the fact that I am stronger and faster than them. Sounds a little conceited but its true. I can play with our children longer! - 9/30/2009   11:20:05 AM
  • DTOUR478
    I believe that it's just another form of peer pressure. - 9/30/2009   10:53:02 AM
  • 49
    I was uber-thin up through the birth of my first child, "normal" weight until the birth of my second child... and then the pounds piled on. In college, I had hooked up with a social group where overweight/obesity was the norm and accepted, so when I started seriously gaining, it took quite a while for me to "wake up" and admit that I was doing a lot of NOT healthy things for my body.

    My turning point came from two main factors: 1) a normal-weight business partner who taught me how to move past complacency to accomplishment (his general philosophy; he never said a word to me about weight loss), and 2) a friend from the aforementioned social group who successfully lost a tremendous amount of weight after being very heavy all of her life. She also never said a word to me about my weight, but she was definitely a huge influence/inspiration for me.

    Now, I'm trying to "Spread the Spark", and some of my friends have now joined SparkPeople. Some are still not really focusing on the weight loss, some have medical conditions now that are slowing their progress and possibly their resolve. But a couple have had tremendous results. We're doing our best to (gently!) encourage the others, though -- that's what friends are for! - 9/30/2009   9:28:37 AM
  • 48
    Social network includes organizations we belong to. I go to club meetings 5 evenings a month that serve refreshment. I should be able to forgo but the social atmosphere allows me to go wild with food and then wild about regret. - 9/30/2009   7:35:16 AM
  • 47
    Yes, and I am working really hard to ignore all the cues and keep doing my own thing. My boss still keeps his bottomless bowl of peanut M&Ms, and my colleagues still eat them by the fistful. I haven't had one since I picked up "The End of Overeating" last July (over 2 months ago) and I am determined never to fall into that trap again. Reading the book made me angry enough to change. I have had to make a very conscious effort to overcome the cues to overeat that are all around me, and I thank Sparkpeople for the social support that enables me to do so. That is what it's all about, isn't it? - 9/29/2009   10:26:38 PM
  • 46
    Suggests a new strategy for people trying to help a spouse or SO lose weight! Enlist the help of the spouse's friends :) - 9/29/2009   6:42:16 PM
  • 45
    Yes, I think we are a lot influenced by the people around us. when I was working one person would decide to order in pizza or bring donuts etc that we would not have eaten otherwise.. No wonder, so many were getting overweight.
    Now that I have retired I do not eat much of this stuff and eat a lot less calories.
    Unfortunately I also get a lot less exercise so have gained the weight.

    My sister invited me to join Sparks and we try to motivate each other by email at least 3 or 4 times a day since we live 900 miles apart. Such as a reminder in the morning to get your water and get on the treadmill.
    - 9/29/2009   5:05:39 PM
  • 44
    Yes I believe people can be influenced by there freinds. I think personality , and the person has a lot to do with it too . Especially when you are younger and your whole world is comprised of your freinds . - 9/29/2009   4:50:22 PM
    I agree that it does have an effect on my personal habits! I may be on plan all week but if my friends and I go out on the weekend and everyone else is drinking and eating snacks then I tend to give myself a "day off"! That is the reason for my decision to stay in on the weekends for a while and find other things to do besides go to bars or restaurants! - 9/29/2009   4:48:24 PM
  • 42
    Hmm... my friends do not affect my weight. But then I don't like exercising with friends - I like to do it alone. - 9/29/2009   3:22:41 PM
  • JEN200411
    I started my weight loss on my own. For years i waited around for a workout/diet buddy and I never found one so I never started working out or "dieting".

    When I first started I became very upset with one of my closest friends who when I told her I was watching what I eat and going to the gym she responded "ooohhh... this again!" and rolled her eyes. She didn't take me seriously until my weight is creeping lower and lower and hers is creeping higher and higher. My prediction is that before Christmas we will meet somewhere in the middle. She now takes me seriously but I can tell she has negative feelings towards me. This has been the only negative experience I have had with a friend and my weight loss.

    On a more positive note several of my friends, my family, and my friends families have taken my lead. They have told me that I am an amazing example. I am so happy that I have been able to share this experience with them!

    So in response yes I believe that your social networks can influence your weight weight either positively or negatively. However, it all boils down to personal choice. - 9/29/2009   3:03:25 PM
  • 40
    My sister told me about SP about 2 years ago. I didn't join until my best friend decided to join. Then we joined together. Now she is working full time and working on her master's degree so she isn't as active as she was when we started. She came to visit me in Arizona and we had a Spark Vacation. We ate healthy and exercised every day. We went sightseeing, shopping, and out to eat, too, but we focused on using our time together to improve ourselves.

    I have another friend who is very overweight. I don't think he has any friends that are as large as he is. I want him to join SP but he hasn't. The other night he ordered pizza. I said I wanted black olive and/or mushroom. He said he'd order that. Well, he put pepperoni on the pizza, too. He really has to start making better choices. - 9/29/2009   2:58:04 PM
  • 39
    i believe that if you have support from your friends you will do better. i have two best friends both were big. my one best friend loses almost all the wieght and is helping me . until my other best friend moved away she influenced me to eat and i put wieght on. so i find that the influence of friends is a big part of wieght lose. - 9/29/2009   2:48:23 PM
  • 38
    I have two best friends, one is my husband and the other is my girlfriend. Both are overweight and are considered obese. I am hoping that I can influence both. Both have taken up exercise but aren't watching their food intake as closely as they need to in order to make lifestyle changes. It is my fervent hope that I can positively influence both. Another mutual friend has lost about 20 pounds and that definitely got me thinking about dropping some weight, so maybe it will work. I can only be responsible for me and leave the rest to them and God. - 9/29/2009   2:38:33 PM
    I agree and disagree. I had one heavy BF and one thin BF in high school. And I was thin all through school and I did not start putting on extra weight until 31 or 32. I just couldn't eat the things that I used to, but I also had different friends at this point in my life. Most of my friends were overweight. It really didn't seem like they worried about being overweight. I can see how that might have an affect on a person. But I can't blame them for my weight gain. I am the one that let it get out of control and I am the one who is going to get it back into control. I will still have friends that are over weight and I will always be their friend, I will just have to use will power. - 9/29/2009   2:19:08 PM
  • 36
    In some cases I think that it can be true. I had a friend who wanted an eating partner. She needed someone to emotionally eat with her so she asked me to do it. Her and I both were gaining weight. I also have my best bud Dennis who I walk with and we also are trying to eat healthier. We support each other in a positive way. I also have a friend who tries to sabbatoge me. She thinks that I am too skinny and always makes comments about it. When we go out to eat she always says "eat anything you want off the menue". I just don't listen to her. I told her that I feel so good about my body and better than I have in years. - 9/29/2009   2:10:14 PM
    I agree. When I hang out with friends or connect on FB with friends that are active and healthy, I tend to keep it in mind to work out or to watch what I eat, but if I spend more time with my overweight friends or family I tend to eat worse without thinking twice. - 9/29/2009   1:57:45 PM
  • 34
    So the interesting flip side is Spark, where if you surround yourself with friends that are attempting to be healthy I believe you feel more motivated to keep trying. I think within us there is a great motivation for reciporcity - someone give you a bar of chocolate or a piece of gum to fit you attempt to give back. Someone brings treats into work, others follow. I've also noticed the social pressure to attempt to get me to eat "bad things" goes up the more I look different. I'm just starting to get to that point at work again and I'm purposely allocating calories for things like brownies etc, just to people see me eating a little bit - then they leave me alone. I've noticed that when you are far above weight in a group you get negative comments, but then ironically if you start dropping below the group norm the comments also get negative. - 9/29/2009   1:45:02 PM
  • 33
    I completely agree. My I really started working out hard, my best friend also started working out (I think it was more of a competition as to who could look better, but at least it's a healthy competition!). On the flipside, I tend to be influenced by my fiance/friends when they order fatty foods or large desserts when out to dinner. I think your social circle have a huge impact on what you eat and how you act, for both better and worse. - 9/29/2009   1:21:19 PM
  • 32
    I agree, but I think there is more to it even. Certain friends I have noticed I tend to break my intentions around (consistently) and others I have no problem with. It has taken me a long time to realize that some of my friends are not good dinner partners for me. - 9/29/2009   1:14:57 PM
  • 31
    I don't know. I have mixed opinions on this. I too have friends in varying sizes. I have two co-workers who constantly complain about their weight. When I try to make suggestions for little things they could change, they say it won't work. They know I've lost the weight. But, they want a quick fix. Of course, that's a whole different blog.

    Take my cousin. She wants to lose weight too. However, every time I try to make a helpful suggestion, I'm called condescending. So, I do what SP tells me. I don't try to influence them. I do my own thing and hope that they learn from my example.

    So, I'm healthy, but I don't seem to be influencing my friends or cousin for the better. Do they influence me ? Not really... While I'm not perfect, I am doing my best to make better choices.

    This is why I have mixed feelings on this article. I've read many other studies that have said that having fat or thin friends can impact a person's weight. It makes sense, but I haven't seen any instances.

    - 9/29/2009   1:14:15 PM
  • 30
    No I am not influence that much by what my friends or co-workers eat. I have different taste buds than most & I most don't crave fast food that much. My best friend is 130lbs soaking wet & my hubby has only gained 15lbs in the last 20years. Go figure! - 9/29/2009   1:13:39 PM
  • 29
    I agree in part with it because it does influeces what we do, but I don't think it's always a domino effect. - 9/29/2009   1:07:00 PM
  • 28
    Absolutely! When I worked for doctors and medical researchers who bicycled and/or ran to and from work every single day, that influenced my attitude about being more fit. I started parking in the farthest corner of the most distant parking lot, and, wearing my pedometer every day, I walked the two miles to my office and climbed four flights of stairs every day, doing the reverse after work, and losing 30 pounds along the way. - 9/29/2009   12:52:30 PM
  • 27
    Just like anything, this depends on the person. I LOVE meeting new people through Spark and sharing my fitness goals with them. I think that's been an important part of my success since my husband and friends were all NON-gym members/exercisers.

    However, in the SEA of friends that I have who were not living healthy lifestyles, I can say that MANY of them have since ventured into exercise after seeing my independent changes over the past year and half. So - maybe the opposite is true too. Maybe one example of healthier choices is enough to influence a group of friends.

    No matter whether they stay the course or return to their old habits, I know that *I* have made a lifestyle choice that will STAY. - 9/29/2009   12:50:33 PM
    Absolutely - my friends and I do not center our socializing around food. Dinner out is not an activity - we'll eat at home to fuel our adventure - dancing or hiking or a day in the surf. There's no pressure to eat fattening desserts or dishes because it's just not a part of our reality.

    On the flip side, we're all smokers.. and I don't think any of us will EVER quit until we all decide to do it together. - 9/29/2009   12:44:19 PM
  • 25
    I do not agree that having obese friends can influence a person on their outlook on a health lifestyle. I am a person that accepts people the way they are and still can maintain my lifestyle. Now there are bad habits of my obese friends such as eating out late, not excercising or overeating etc, that I try to influence otherwise, but do not participate in. - 9/29/2009   12:40:07 PM
    absolutely! it definately helps me to lose weight and be healthier when i am doing it with friends to encourage me. - 9/29/2009   12:21:34 PM
    I am not sure if having overweight friends will make you over weight.
    But I do know that some so called friends will add stress to your life that can help pack on the lbs.
    When I started my weightloss journey 2 years ago I was not only overweight but battling depression. I was under stress from a number of directions. One being the group of friends I was hanging around with. They were always trying to make me live as they wanted me ot. Not what was best for me. I made a number of difficult decisions, one being cutting lose from these "friends" While there are some aspects of the friendships I miss, I have to say I am healthier without them. 120lb lighter and 8 sizes. No more depression and a healthly positive attitude about myself.
    Some times it is better it drop the negative friends than try and please them. - 9/29/2009   12:18:56 PM
  • 22
    Yes....when I see my skinny friends in a bathing makes me work harder. I am sure that if I were surrounded by obese people I would feel fine in my bathing suit and even go for some friend beach food that I shouldn't be having. - 9/29/2009   12:13:43 PM
  • 21
    I have a friend that i walk with 3- day a week and she is the one that wants to go to starbucks and get coffee.. me i will pass on that i would rather eat my lunch then drink it .. there coffes are good but not worht the cal's in them .. So yes i think that friend can influence you.. - 9/29/2009   12:05:03 PM
    I can't say that I am enfluenced by my friends..I am more a trend setter than a follower! - 9/29/2009   11:58:23 AM
  • 19
    Yes some times - 9/29/2009   11:47:45 AM
  • 18
    I am influenced in bad, bad, bad ways by my friends. I once lost 65 pounds and did it only by giving up a social life. Everything social that I do involves food and drink, and if I am to avoid temptation and needless suffering, I must also drop my social life. My church ladies' circle serves dessert, my bookclub serves food, my friends ask me out to parties, dinners, and bars. I signed up for a Bible study and even it has people taking turns bringing snacks--each week gets worse and worse as each person seems to feel they have to be as generous or worse than the previous provider. I signed up for a hiking club, and after the hike every one was expected to chip in to pay for the hot dogs and potato salad picnic served at the end of the trail. I said I wasn't hungry and some kind lady bought a plateful for me since she thought maybe I just had forgotten to bring money. I am giving my friend a ride to the airport, and she feel she must buy me lunch to thank me. Aargh. I know some people can handle these situations by making healthy choices, but frankly I find the best thing is to avoid them altogether. I am definitely opting for seclusion, loneliness, and boredom in order to get healthy, strong, and fit. - 9/29/2009   11:45:21 AM
  • 17
    I have friends with great health habits, and I have friends with not so great health habits!
    But at Spark, ALL of my friends have great habits or are working to great habits! As I am typing this, I truly believe this is where good health starts! And for me I am greatly attracted to good habits that make me feel more energized, and able to move without pain! THIS IS MY INFLUENCE! - 9/29/2009   11:40:06 AM

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