Obesity Epidemic Solved?

Another reason to choose your friends wisely.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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We are besieged with articles and studies about the dangers of trans fat, sugar substitutes, too much salt in processed foods, irresponsible advertising to children, portion size, stress and lack of time to prepare meals, which can lead to calorie-laden choices and the dreaded obesity epidemic.

After reading an article recently in the Chicago Tribune about the latest obesity findings, the results of a study funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, I am even more worried, stressed and depressed.

I always thought the cause of obesity was either in the genes, diet choices, portion distortion, lack of exercise, workaholic behavior or a combination of those factors. But now comes the latest bugaboo: one's social network. Yes, it's the people around you that cause you to be obese, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School.

After analyzing the social networks of 12,067 persons, who participated in the Framingham Heart Study for more than three decades between 1971 and 2003, researchers concluded it's one's social network of family and friends that makes you fat. And to rule out the idea that "birds of a feather flock together," friends who were both obese at the beginning of the Framingham study were excluded.

Co-author of the study, Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School, says a person's chances of becoming obese increases 57 percent if someone he considers a friend becomes obese. Even more upsetting is that if the two people name each other as a friend, the chance for the other to follow suit skyrockets 171 percent.

Here's the final dagger to the heart. Although the authors say they are not suggesting people kick their overweight friends to the curb, they think expanding one's social network to include more people with a healthy weight is a good idea. Study co-author James Fowler suggests you "encourage your friends to change their behavior so you can act in concert with them."

You might also have to forget Thanksgiving dinner this year. Obesity risk rose 40 percent if a sibling becomes obese and 37 percent if your spouse fattens up. On the plus side, you can visit your neighbors -- there is no association between their weight and yours even if you share a common environment and social class.

The worst-case scenario is associating with obese friends -- people of the same sex exert a stronger influence on each other than those of the oppose sex. OK, so I admit I've gained a quite a few pounds over the past few years. Most of my friends are younger, better looking and thinner. Does that mean when I call them about having dinner, they will suddenly tell me they are too busy or let my call go into voicemail? Will our girls' night out become just a memory? Will I have to sit at home alone every night watching The Food Network reruns snacking on carrots and drinking water instead of hoisting a couple of martinis in the next trendy drinking place?

Even if my friends don't totally ditch me, I have to fess up to the reality that I am a dangerous influence. Maybe I should avoid seeing them as much as possible. After all, since they are my friends, I don't want to contribute to their obesity by being nearby. Thank goodness for e-mail.

It's a heavy responsibility.

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