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.

Action Sparked: Don’t trade in all of your overweight friends for trimmer models just yet. Rather than asking what your friends can do for you, do what you can for your friends. Examined from a different angle, this study shows that while unhealthy behaviors are contagious, so are healthy ones. Instead of waiting for your friends to get on the path to a healthy lifestyle, assume the role of the trailblazer in your group. Suggest hiking instead of a trip to the movies, and you’ll both benefit.

This is one of the basic principles on which SparkPeople was founded. One person, doing what they can to get healthy and fit, can be a powerful influence to many others—a spark that ignites a change. Here are some ideas to “Spread the Spark” so that your healthy habits are contagious to your friends and family:
  • Join a gym with a buddy. Many times, membership rates are lower (and the workouts are more fun) when you're with a friend. And just think of how many people the two of you have the power to influence!
  • Choose social activities that are active. If you’re into sports, organize or join a soccer team. Evening walks with a nearby friend, indoor rock climbing, bicycling, bowling and canoeing are other good bets.
  • Throw a fitness party to share the fun of exercise with your friends.
  • Get connected with a SparkTeam. Be a model of good health habits to other SparkPeople members, and sit back while they positively impact you. You can join an existing Team or start one of your own.
  • Here are even more ideas for you to Spread the Spark to others!

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
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Member Comments

    This is why our friends are our friends, we all seek comfort the same way. It's life.
  • My husband is a meat and potatoes guy who can eat anything. And I mean Anything. I look at food and I gain 5 pounds. He's trying since my thyroid became wonky
  • I can see this happening - it more or less what happened to me,
    I've always been watchful of who I hang out with.
  • In 2005 I went on my first ever diet, the Atkins diet. At the time I weighed around 210lbs. I lost over 70lbs.

    I worked out 6-7 days a week, I was feeling really good about myself, and very adventurous. That summer I met a girl and we became friends. She was morbidly obese, but I never pressured her to lose weight. I then, and now, feel that, that is a decision for the individual to make.

    But she asked me to give her tips on how to lose weight, so I told her what worked for me. She asked me to workout with her, so I did.

    But very soon after (I'm talking one workout session later) she had a huge fight with her mom and didn't feel up to workout out and could I just hang out and chat with her? The next day it was, I'm not feeling well, could we just hang out? The next it was, I'm going out to eat with friends, why don't you come along? Etc.

    Anytime I'd go workout alone she'd get mad at me for "ditching" her. But if I tried to get her to come along, she would have some kind of crisis or injury/illness.

    She would insist that we go out to eat regularly, insisting on greasy, unhealthy places. If I didn't agree she'd get mad at me and cry or yell at me.

    She started sending me emails calling off our friendship because I was so "mean to her". When I'd ask her what I'd done, she would say that I was, "just so mean all the time", but wouldn't give me an example.

    At one point she decided she wanted to introduce me to some of her other friends. So she invited me to a friend's birthday party. As we walked up to the door, she turned to me and said, "Oh by the way, I've kinda already told everyone about you, and they really don't like you. So try to be nice."

    I had to spend the entire evening around strangers I felt hated me.

    That's when I started realizing this was a toxic friendship. I started trying to pull away from her, and she just became more clingy; inviting one of her closest friends to help gang up on me and manipulate me. If I tried to pull away they would berate me for being so mean and selfish....
  • One of my work pals told me I motivated her to eat well, as I eat well. That was nice to hear. She motivated me to exercise!
  • I agree with the article. I have dear family members who enjoy eating burgers, fries, etc., with no thought of health consequences; and yes, they do have health issues.
    I love them, and have in the past joined in on the "fun."
    So the more time I spend with them ...... let's just say, there will be no conversion.
    I just have to remain committed to my goals! Still love them to pieces! Ultimately, we all get to lead the life we chose.
  • I have friends who are thin, friends who are overweight and friends between the two. I have family in the same fashion. While I understand the premise that social norms influence a person's perception on health, weight and fitness, stating that "your friends make you fat" is an over-generalizati
    on. It reminds of the bait and click titles that many news blogs and such have taken to using, to pull people into their articles. The other piece, it involves just over 12,000 people - what were the demographics, the ages, the general health of the participants (etc). What part of the world did they pull from? What is the overall society norm for weight, health and fitness in that area where they studied? Was it rural or urban, affluent or poor? All this does play into the research too. Personally my social and family group are supportive and understanding, as the majority of my weight is from health issues.
  • YOU make you fat. Until you accept that, you'll stay fat.
  • 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.
  • 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. (-:
  • 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.
    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.

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.