Fat bellies are contagious. Obesity is like a virus, spreading by close social contacts. The term obesity epidemic, often used by public health advocates, has got a new, literal meaning since new findings from the Framingham Heart Study have shown that a person is at risk of getting fat if he or she has fat friends.
Results in brief: A person's risk of becoming obese (body mass index 30 or more) increases by 57 percent if she or he has a friend who has got obese in a given time interval. It is important to note that, with a probability of 95 percent, the risk increase is somewhere between 8 and 123 percent. The influence is greatest in fat friends of same sex, it is less in spouses and siblings. Neighbourhood is not important because living distance between the friends seems to be of minor influence. The researchers claim that a considerable part of this influence is causal, that is, you make friends with a fat person and then you get fat yourself. The findings cannot be explained merely by fat people seeking the company of other fat people.
Bad news for fat friends?
Should fat people now fear to lose friends? I see two important reasons to calm down. Having good friends is a very important positive health factor. Breaking a close friendship causes stress which is bad for health and, above all, for life quality. Compared to this, an obesity risk change somewhere between zero and double is less important in my opinion. The big spread in risk figures means that there is much room for fighting the influence of fat belly virus.
Strengthen your immune system
If obesity is like a virus, the fact that its spread is limited (less than double risk) tells us that there must be something like an immune system. In order to find out what it might be we must look at possible mechanisms that make fat friends contagious.
Social eating is likely to be the most important one. Good friends spend much time eating together. People tend to adopt behaviours of close friends, using the same language, fashion style, food, gestures and the like, as psychologists have found. Eating habits cannot be an exception of this rule. In contrary, we all know situations where we eat one more portion just to please the host. And in a table round where eating three portions is normal it is not easy to listen to one's own appetite and stop in time. In other words: The real virus is not obesity but eating habits and their social influence.
Seven ways to get immune against social eating pressure:
- Take small portions even if all your friends take big ones. Read more about the importance of small portions.
- Eat slowly even if all your friends eat fast.
- Talk, talk, talk - this way you are social without taking up calories.
- If you like the food, take enough time to enjoy every bit of it.
- If you do not like the food, do not force yourself to eat more than you really want.
- Listen to your body telling you when you are fed.
- Resist friends urging you to take more.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/poppywright/208748410/