Nutrition Articles

Are Your Friends Making You Fat?

Weight Loss News Flash

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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

  • So stupid. If you have a friend that makes you feel bad about working out and not eating donuts with them. YOUR the problem not them. Get a backbone…and that might be just one of the reasons YOU are fat. You can't say no or set boundaries or limits on people. - 3/6/2015 6:54:40 PM
  • NO TO WORKOUT BUDDIES!!! Buddies and other assorted chatty fatties DON'T work out; they hang out, and they're generally in the way.

    Also...seriousl
    y? Be a pompous @$$ and nagging your fat friends 1) makes you a big jerk and 2) will drive them away.

    Stop blaming your failures on everyone else, how 'bout? - 3/6/2015 4:40:53 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
    eople.com/myp
    age_public_jo
    urnal_individ
    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
  • LIZZIED_79
    I think that this study is insulting. While I have joined the Spark community to make healthy changes in my life, I understand that thin does not equal healthy. There is already a fear cultivating around our "obesity crisis" in America and this only contributes to the prejudice that heavy people face each day. You can not catch "fat" and although the article doesn't outright suggest it, it only contributes to this issue of fear and prejudice.

    However, I will admit that the company you keep also creates a positive or negative culture in your life.Yet, I don't see many articles on people who have friends who drink too much and so they may become alcoholics. I don't chose my friends by weight , but I will tell you those I have that are heavy are very active.
    - 11/18/2012 1:28:13 PM
  • KARLYN
    Just started a hiking group and it is growing...fast! So much fun to do as a get-together, great idea - 7/13/2012 4:27:46 PM
  • If this is true, then I hope my weight loss can affect their weight loss. - 5/9/2012 8:01:05 PM
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