Is Obesity Socially Contagious?

fat couple walking Is Obesity Socially Contagious?A new study published in the journal Obesity attempts to answer two questions:

  1. Does obesity tend to “cluster” among young adults?
  2. And if true, what impact does the “cluster” have on the weight and weight-related behaviors of it’s members?

The Study

The researchers took 288 volunteers (66% female, 75% Caucasian) and divided them into two groups – Normal Weight (NW) and Over Weight (OW).

Each test subject filled out a questionnaire to determine weight, height, number of overweight social contacts (friends, lovers, relatives, classmates, etc…) and perceived social norms for obesity and obesity related behaviors.

Members of the OW group were also asked to assess how many of their overweight/obese social contacts:

  1. were currently trying to lose weight
  2. were intending to lose weight in the near future
  3. encouraged weight loss in other overweight contacts
  4. would encourage/approve weight loss in their overweight contacts

The Results

Compared to normal weight young adults, those who were overweight or obese were more likely to:

  • have an overweight romantic partner (25 percent  vs. 14 percent for the NW group)
  • have an overweight best friend (24 percent vs. 14 percent for the NW group)

This led the researchers to conclude that obesity is socially contagious.

It also reinforced previous research published in the NEJM.

However, when they considered that…

  1. “both groups reported similarly low levels of social acceptability for being overweight, eating unhealthy foods and being inactive” and
  2. among OW/OB young adults, having more social contacts trying to lose weight was associated with greater intention to lose weight

…the researchers also concluded that “overweight and obese young adults who had more social contacts trying to lose weight were more likely to want to lose weight themselves”.

And to me, that’s the most important part of this study.

While peer pressure and social structure does have the negative effect of ghettoizing overweight individuals into groups, it can also have a powerful effect on changing weight-related behaviors.

And if anyone is interested in developing a successful weight loss program is listening, this is where they should begin.

With positive peer pressure.

Not with food pyramids or calorie counters or lectures on health & longevity, blah, blah, blah.

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Reference

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Doug Robb is a personal trainer, a fitness blogger and author, a competitive athlete, a social media nerd and a student of nutrition and exercise science. Since 2008, Doug has brought his real-world experience online via his health & fitness blog, Health Habits.

7 Comments

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  3. Karma

    January 19, 2011 at 7:47 am

    Another factor is in the tendancy that youths who are overweight tend are not considered as attractive and therefore not as popular – so not only do they gravitate towards others who understand their plight, they are often outright shunned by those of normal weight.

    I wasn’t an overweight teen because my friends were overweight teens – in fact my friends were usually outcasts of the super-nerdy persuasion. I also grew up at a time when most kids were of a more normal weight and I was one of the few who was overweight.

    I think that rather than obesity being socially contagious that it is contagious among families – not only do people of families have the same body types / genetic predispositions but they also tend to eat the same because they eat together much of the time. Children learn their eating habits from their parents.

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  5. mac

    January 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Doug, I totally agree with peers surrounding themselves with people like them. I also agree with the fact that peer pressure is a very guiding influence (especially with the younger set). One of the reasons I have changed from being fat to fit is because my wife (my closest peer and friend) is such a fit person. I had a great example to model my life after—it just took me a while to realize it and start living it.

  6. Susan@Home Workouts

    January 12, 2011 at 8:20 am

    I’m no expert but I would assume that it is more likely you will accept an overweight person if you are overweight yourself. That’s just my initial thought after reading your post.

    • healthhabits

      January 12, 2011 at 10:01 am

      That’s the big limitation of this and other studies…they don’t look into the “why”

      I figure that the reason why overweight people are more likely to associate with each other is the same reason why other people with similarities (sex, race, religion, income level, likes & dislikes…) associate with each other…..our similarities.

      If I love steak and you’re a vegetarian, what are the odds of us going out for dinner?
      I like the opera & you like football
      I love big city life and you prefer living in the country

      For me, the study shows that we are influenced by our peers…or we choose our peers based on our influences…it’s a chicken v egg kind of debate