Fat Friends: Obesity Study Hard to Swallow

The “fat friendship” story was all over the media this morning. Yikes.

The implications of this are so upsetting I’m already eating my seventh Hershey’s kiss.

(Good news: check out the “nutritional information” on the package. Serving size is nine!)

Really, though, could it be true that just having a fat friend or spouse can somehow make you fat?

So says this new research based on the famous Framingham Heart Study, which is tracking more than 12,000 people over 32 years. “Social networks play a surprisingly powerful role in determining an individual’s chances of gaining weight, transmitting an increased risk of becoming obese from wives to husbands, from brothers to brothers and from friends to friends,” reported the Washington Post.

My heart hurts just hearing this. Aren’t fat people already shunned and mocked enough? Now they have to take responsibility for everyone’s fat as well? Yikes. (And she pops Hershey’s kiss Number Eight.)

Sure sounds credible, coming from Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School, and to be published tomorrow in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Watch out,” the new study seemed to imply. “Stay away! Get too close to a dreaded Fat Person, and their fat will magically and irreversibly rub off on YOU!”

As an afterthought, at the end of the Washington Post article and also at the CNN report I saw this morning, reporters note that the opposite also seems to be true: when one person loses weight, so do their friends.

This is the concept behind Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, running clubs, and many other health-oriented groups. We inspire each other to achieve our goals.

Why wasn’t this the headline?

Why aren’t researchers putting half as much energy into promoting healthy behaviors as they are into exploring obesity?

We already know what prevents obesity: daily physical activity and relatively healthy food choices. You don’t have to be a nut about it. You can have some Hershey’s kisses now and then (she says, finishing off Number Nine.)

The key is to move: moderate to vigorous activity on most days.

But by all means, please please please don’t abandon your fat friends out of your own fat-o-phobia or misinterpretation of this research.

Fat friends do not cause obesity; overeating and under-exercising do.

The moral of this story is not to avoid fat people.

It’s to be a leader yourself, inspiring all of your friends and colleagues, fat, thin, and middle-sized, to follow in your footsteps, literally, and choose a path of daily physical activity.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation
MNelson@aahperd.org

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2 Responses to “Fat Friends: Obesity Study Hard to Swallow”

  1. Rebecca Morgan Says:

    I agree that I hope this doesn’t create more shunning of the overweight. Having carried extra pounds all my post-puberty life, I can say that people can be cruel. While not obese, I have had the experience of young men calling out insults as they drive by while I’m out walking.

    However, I also understand what the study points out. Your set point for “normal” gets changed. Nearly all of my extended family is obese, some weighing 300-400 pounds. At 50-pounds overweight, I am considered one of the slim ones. Needless to say, my relatives and their children are all rounded. One could argue that hereditary is to play here, since obesity is so rampant in my family line. But as I observe lifestyle, I think fast- and junk-food and inactivity play a big part. These relatives drive two blocks to the store. One even has her dinners deliveredby a service so she won’t have to get out of her recliner to cook.

    I understand that if you think fried food, white bread, and Velveeta cheese are part of a normal daily diet, and that your friends do too, you see nothing’s amiss. If your pals say, “Hey, let’s go to Sonic for lunch” instead of “Let’s take a walk at lunch,” you are inclined to go along. I have fallen into the trap myself. It takes consciousness and effort to push back and say, “Let’s grab a Wendy’s salad after we’ve walked for half our lunch hour.”

    Traditions are most difficult to break. Up until her death six years ago, my overweight mother would insist we have traditional fixings for the holidays. Thanksgiving consisted of fat-laden gravy, rolls, green-bean casserole, marshmallow-topped yams, etc. She served this to her overweight children and grandchildren until she could no longer cook. Then she asked me to take up the hosting, and when I would try to transition the menu to more health conscious items, she expressed her disappointment. Thanks to motherly guilt, I relented and fixed the traditional fare, although cut back the options (who really needs two kinds of potatoes at dinner, plus stuffing and all the rest?).

    So, yes, having friends who are working to be healthier can make a huge difference in your making better choices. But if they are not willing to make the changes you seek, you have to limit your interaction with the old friends and find new ones. It’s the same as when drug users want to get clean — they have to break off with their old user friends and only hang with clean ones.

  2. Mariah Burton Nelson Says:

    Hey Rebecca,

    These details of your family habits are so vivid and instructive. Thanks for sharing them. The subtitle of this blog includes the word HABIT because that’s what healthy living really comes down to. And yes, bad habits become addictions and can even kill.

    The only thing I object to in your note is the word “overweight.” I’m of the “love yourself as you are” school of thought (an admittedly small but not elitist school; we welcome all!) and the word “overweight” sounds so judgmental.

    What does that do to one’s self-esteem, I wonder, to identify as “overweight”? Yeah, I know where it comes from, and I don’t disagree that you might feel better if you get lighter.

    But can you just go ahead and feel better now?

    Can you love THIS body?

    What would happen if you did?


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