Nutrition Articles

Are Your Friends Making You Fat?

Weight Loss News Flash

If your friend who lives across the country comes down with a cold, you’re surely not going to catch it from her. But if she becomes overweight, that just might spread to you.

So say researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of California, who published research in a July 2007 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. After analyzing data from 12,067 individuals, they found that when one individual becomes obese, the chance that his or her friend will become obese increases by 57 percent—even if their friend lives far away, and especially if their friend is of the same sex—71 percent in that case. Other members of people's "social network" were also affected: their siblings’ risk increased by 40 percent and their spouses' by 37 percent. In contrast, a neighbor, if not a part of their social network, experienced no increase in risk.

Obviously, weight gain isn’t contagious in the same way a cold is contagious. Rather than being spread through the transmission of bodily fluids, like a virus, obesity is “socially" contagious—it can be spread through the transmission of behaviors and social norms. People within a social network often engage in health-impacting behaviors together, such as Friday night parties with too much wine and cheese or working lunches of fatty restaurant fare. These behaviors may result in weight gain, especially if they become habits. Even more importantly, each person within the social network serves as a standard by which others in the network may compare themselves. The 10-pound weight gain your best friend is wearing makes you feel a little less guilty about the extra five pounds you’re sporting, and if fast-food is an acceptable meal for your sister-in-law, you may develop a more lackadaisical attitude about dinner in your own house.
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • YOU make you fat. Until you accept that, you'll stay fat. - 9/3/2015 3:48:23 PM
  • When I saw the title, I had to read the article because it alone had me riled up! As I was reading, I instantly began considering the role social obesity has played in my life...or has it? Speaking from my experience alone, I know I never actually chose to be morbidly obese, unfit, unhealthy, exhausted...yet I lived all of that when 50+ additional pounds were packed on my 5'2" body. There is a reason that each of my sisters struggles with obesity right along with me. My parents love all of us unconditionally..
    .yet we are of an era when nutrition, health, lifestyle were not in the equation or even considered. They were lucky to put food on the table, and food was love and part of all happy times and celebrations. Still, as I left home I was fit and healthy...until I packed on pounds with each of my three pregnancies and NEVER lost them. No one ever shoved a fork in my mouth and told me to eat, so I chose to live what I knew and helped me feel happy and find comfort, F-O-O-D! Fast forward to today, I try to lead by example and help my family understand basic nutrition and ways to tweak lifestyle to improve their fitness. My hope is that my beautiful granddaughters will at least understand and feel empowered with their knowledge, for as a Mom I too failed in this regard. Family dinners and celebrations are vastly different these days, there is still as much love and fun, yet dang...broccoli can become a YuM without a cheese sauce, and we all are trying new fruits and veggies. Let me end in saying, I point my finger at No One. (When we point, three point right back at us, ask my Mom!) Each and every day I try and make the best choices for ME, and I hope a long the way I send out a few Sparks that help others in their quest for wellness. - 8/3/2015 8:13:06 AM
  • I found that eating OUT can be a problem if it is done too often. I cook healthy at home and know what ingredients and seasonings I am using. Restaurants can have hidden sodium and be a real eye opener. I am eating all Whole Grain now and it is wonderful. I cannot blame my friends for testing me when we are out, I just need to make the Right Choices when I look at the menu. It is all Up to me and CHOICES!! Same way at parties or visiting people, I just eat what I am allowed on my plan. I cannot blame them. My family all eat healthy and we know what is good for us. Some of my friends just eat the fattening meals and drink the fattening drinks . They are good friends, and that is their choice. I am on a healthy plan for Life and Wellness and will not let them tempt me. I can do it and it is up to me. Thanks for sharing Spark people. We can do this and BE Strong in our decisions. (-: - 8/2/2015 9:28:29 AM
  • In my opinion, there are pros and cons in this article. Yes, sometimes we can stray and have a food fest with friends, but let us not blame our others for our own behavior. We are all on Sp pretty much for the same reasons. There are to many out there who blame obese, chunky , fat or what ever you choose to call it. for oh so many wrong things. Like I would choose to give myself cancer twice? Sadly there are many people who do not stop and think before pointing fingers, If one makes up their mind to do the right thing for themselves they will do it. Even with the "Peer Pressure". Journal any slip ups, write the food you eat on SP even if it is a 1/4 or even 1/8 keep yourself in check that is what I do and so far I am doing well and also seeing where I make my mistakes. I have a long way to go. One Step, Moment & one day at a time. FYI I am also sober for 20 years because I made up my mind to do it. It was not easy but Everyday is a plus. Please be proud of all you and Be Blessed because you are Unique. There is only one you. - 7/21/2015 1:39:48 PM
    Please, this should be a safe zone without rude comments. As mom used to say, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything." Snarky comments can discourage others, and I'm sure none of us really wants to do that. Think before you think. - 6/12/2015 1:02:47 PM
  • I used to think this was complete bunk. The word being "used to". The last time I really took weight lose serious I lost 70lbs, I was within 5lbs of my goal weight. When I made friends with a couple of girls who were morbidly obese. I thought they were really nice and I liked them. They seemed interested in what I'd done to lose weight and I was happy to encourage them and share what I'd learned. But rather quickly they started sabotaging me. They would pressure me to skip workouts to hang out with them. They would ask me to hold off on going to the gym until they could come along, which never happened. Then they would be mad at me if I went without them. They'd force me to have desserts with them. If I refused they'd pick on me and put me down. They made me feel bad for my weight lose. When I tried to start a hiking club with some other friends, they made it so difficult and unpleasant that it never go off the ground. Finally, I just had enough and I cut them out of my life. But by then the damage was done. I'd gained 30lbs and had lost confidence in myself. I'm now much more careful about the friends I make. - 3/6/2015 11:34:34 AM
  • Scary - 9/21/2014 2:30:28 PM
  • This article is the absolute truth. While some might be immune to unhealthy habits of others, I'm certainly not. I'm sure many others aren't either. It takes a village to raise a child and it certainly takes a village to lose weight! I posted my long response in support of this article here: http://www.sparkp
    ual.asp?blog_id=5766132 - 8/24/2014 4:17:49 PM
  • I understand and agree! I have always struggled to stay on the disciplined side of food and exercise in the social network of my world, because no-one else saw the need (or needed to see it) to eat healthy.
    Currently, due to a foot issue, I HAD to lose excess pounds, and now my husband has become motivated. We are both doing SparkPeople and the pounds are falling off. I never thought I would ever see my husband counting calories, reading food labels, saying no to the fatening foods, and nibbling (not chomping) on raw vegetables.
    We are supporting each other, and I couldn't be happier. Together I believe we will influence the others in our circle of influence. - 8/24/2014 9:35:10 AM
  • Very thought provoking article. It reminded me of living in the US and seeing shelves of baby foods in the grocery stores. Then going to England and seeing none because babies in England go from breastfeeding to shared table food (appropriately mashed, cut etc for a baby).

    - 8/24/2014 6:07:11 AM
  • We really don't have the right to judge other people's weight motivations. When we criticize other people's health choices, it gives us a sense of moral superiority and boosts our self-esteem but it comes at the expense of compassion and understanding. We are all responsible for the choices we truly have control over. I don't choose my friends because of their bodies and my body is frankly my business. The people I care about come in all shapes and sizes. They don't control the size of my behind. It is true however, that I have experienced shunning at work because of my weight and age. There are lots of people out there who really fear that fat is a communicable disease. I choose not to be one of them. - 7/15/2014 12:17:21 PM
  • No my friend are not making me fat, because I won't let them, because I am stronger than them!!

    I have given up (trying) motivating them as you say "they don't want to change the way they live.

    One has had two knee ops caused by over weight , he says "if I lost weight it may not have happen". too darn true.

    The other has diabetes and say he doesn't care , my family will be taken care of when I go.

    Head against brick wall comes to mind.
    - 7/14/2014 5:49:45 AM
  • Sometimes we do have to be careful because they will try to get you to eat stuff that's not good for you. Even when they know you are moving toward good health. - 11/25/2013 5:38:06 AM
  • All this article did was help to confirm my fears that I have trouble making friends because of my weight. My husband says it's their loss, but it still makes me feel crappy. - 11/6/2013 7:12:02 AM
  • Truthfully, the gym-buddy idea has never worked for me. I always end up with one of two people.

    1) They don't really want to workout, they just want to hang out. They sabotage any workout plans because they don't want to admit that they just aren't interested in going. or 2) They expect me to be their personal trainer. They want me to tell them what to do, when to do it, and how many reps they should do. So I end up spending the entire time standing next to their machine helping them.

    So I find it best just to go solo; I'm much more motivated that way and I get a lot more done. - 9/9/2013 6:45:48 PM

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